Not all job openings are created equal, and not all job interview questions are asked in good faith. In a job interview, hiring managers have the right to ask you questions about your education, skills, work experience, and personal strengths.
At the same time, you’re under no obligation to respond to questions that pry into your medical history, finances, identity, or private affairs. If a recruiter presses you with these sorts of questions, you’re well within your rights to refuse to answer them.
Often, illegal interview questions like the following are a sign that you should walk away from the interview table and pursue jobs with less problematic human resource departments. These red flags include questions about:
Medical conditions or disabilities
Gender, sex, or sexual orientation
Family, relationships, or children
Race or ethnicity
Religion or politics
Interview questions about age reflect prejudice towards older professionals
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission forbids employers in the United States from discriminating against job applicants or current employees on the basis of age. Practically speaking, this makes it illegal to ask questions like these during job interviews:
How old are you?
What is your date of birth?
When did you graduate from college?
Did you recently graduate from college?
Are you older than 40?
How long have you been working in this industry?
These sorts of questions were made illegal to counter long-entrenched prejudices in many modern businesses against hiring or retaining professionals older than 40. Besides having the right to refuse to answer age-related questions, you’re also under no obligation to mention your age or specific job/education dates in your resume or cover letter.
(The recent Covid-19 Pandemic, which caused workforces all across the world to shrink, has somewhat increased the demand for senior employees with decades of experience in their fields.)
Illegal interview questions about your origins
Many online job applications will ask if you’re legally allowed to work in your current country of residence. Other job openings, particularly those centered around education or customer interaction, will ask if you’re proficient with certain languages. Questions like these are more or less legal, especially if you’re given the chance to answer them on your own terms.
Interview questions about your origins and place of birth, however, are straight-up illegal in many countries–a legal protection instituted to keep job applicants from being discriminated against for being foreign or an immigrant. If you get asked questions along these lines during your interview, you’re under no obligation to answer them.
Are you a citizen of this country?
What is your place of birth?
What region did you grow up in?
Where are your parents from?
Where did you learn these foreign languages?
Many of the interview questions listed in this article are illegal to ask because they can enable very subtle forms of workplace discrimination.
HR departments in modern-day businesses rarely publicize their reasons for accepting or rejecting certain job candidates. If a hiring manager rejects a job candidate for unfair, bigoted reasons, it’s easy for them to hide behind the claim that the applicant’s credentials were simply lacking.
Making certain interview questions illegal, though not a foolproof solution, protects job applicants from needing to share information that would harm their chances of getting hired.
Questions that are illegal to ask in an interview: questions about your finances are generally unnecessary
EEO laws in the US don’t strictly forbid employers from asking about your finances. It is, however, illegal for employers to discriminate against you for not meeting an arbitrary level of wealth.
Most of the time, there’s no reason for job interviewers to ask you questions about your financial wellbeing. Be particularly wary of intrusive questions like these:
Do you own a house or are you renting an apartment?
Are you currently paying off debts such as student loans?
How much money is in your savings account?
Have you recently declared bankruptcy?
Questions such as “Do you own a car?” or “Where do you currently live?” may touch on your current financial situation, but are valid interview questions if your answers will help recruiters figure out whether you can reliably commute to work.
Interview questions about medical conditions/disabilities shouldn’t pry too deeply
For non-discrimination purposes, some online job applications may ask you about your physical or mental health (with questions that are rarely more complex than “Do you have a physical or mental disability?”).
Thanks to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, many job applications will also ask if you’ve been vaccinated or if your vaccinations are up to date. Any questions that demand more details about your physical or mental health are illegal and very intrusive.
As a rule, you should never have to answer questions like these:
Can you describe your physical disability?
Can you describe your mental illness?
Are you taking some form of medication at the moment?
How often do you go to the hospital?
Are you seeing a therapist right now?
How often do you exercise?
Even with recent cultural trends towards embracing diversity in the workplace, certain physical or mental disabilities still carry an unfair stigma.
Additionally, EEO laws in the US do require employees to automatically provide reasonable accommodations to job applicants with disabilities (wheelchair ramps, sign language interpreters, breaks for employees to take medications, etc).
For these reasons and others, you should not have to say anything during interviews about your physical or mental health.
If a job interviewer asks one or more of the illegal questions mentioned in this article, you’re well within your rights to shut down their line of questioning with one of the following statements:
“I’m not comfortable answering that question at this time.”
“I’d prefer not to answer that question.”
“I don’t believe it’s legal to ask that during job interviews.”
“Could we move on to another topic, please?”
“I feel answering this question wouldn’t be appropriate.”
The responses described above can be blunt, but do also effectively establish boundaries if your job interviewer’s questions are crossing the line.
If your interviewer is asking legal, valid questions you’re just not comfortable answering, you can try to change the topic with more tactful responses like these:
“Could we return to this question later?”
“Could you give me a moment to think about my answer?”
“When you say…do you mean…?”
“Can you tell me why you want to know that?”
Interview questions about sex, gender, or orientation are only allowed under very specific circumstances
There are a few valid reasons why an employer may want to recruit an employee with a specific gender identity: a woman to research and write articles about women’s health, for instance. In general, though, job interviewers asking about an applicant’s identity should never escalate beyond questions like “What’s your gender?” or “What are your preferred pronouns?”
Aforementioned exceptions aside, job interviewers should never ask questions like these:
What is your sex?
Can you describe your sexual orientation?
Have you undergone gender affirming surgery?
Are you undergoing gender affirming hormone therapy?
Illegal interview questions: interview questions about family or relationships are very intrusive
You might get asked questions about your work-life balance during job interviews. However, your home life is your own affair, and job interviewers have no right to intrude on your privacy with questions about family, friends, or roommates. Be particularly wary if you’re blindsided with interview questions such as:
Are you single or married?
Do you have children?
Are you expecting children?
How many people live in your residence?
What is the name of your spouse?
Under US laws, Interview questions like these are illegal regardless of your gender, sex, or living situation. At the same time, these sorts of questions are particularly intrusive for women, who too frequently face unfair double standards and can be discriminated against for having non-normative relationships, raising children unmarried, working while expecting a baby, and so on.
According to a recent article on the NASDAQ website, 61% of employees in the US have experienced or witnessed discrimination due to race, gender, sexual orientation, or age; 81% of this 61% sample group experienced this discrimination in a remote workplace environment.
Even with legal provisions in place to protect employees from discrimination, the interviewed group of aggrieved professionals also stated that only 54% of the issues they reported were properly resolved.
Interviewers should only ask about race or ethnicity for affirmative action programs
Some online job applications (particularly on job board websites like LinkedIn) contain a section where applicants are asked to voluntarily identify their race/ethnicity in order to gather information for affirmative action programs.
To keep these equity, inclusion, and diversity questions from being used to discriminate, the information added to these application forms is not supposed to be shared with Human Resources staffers in charge of interviewing candidates.
By the same token, the questions hiring managers ask during direct job interviews should never touch on your race, ancestry, skin color, or physical build. You should also never have to answer questions about your genes and whether your family line has a history of hereditary illness.
Besides being illegal, these sorts of questions can be used to stealthily gather information about your ethnicity on the sly.
Are questions about religion or politics questions that are illegal to ask in an interview?
Your religious creed (or lack thereof) may matter if you’re being interviewed for job openings in a church or non-profit organization centered around your faith. Similarly, your political views may be relevant if you’re seeking work with broadcasters or publishers of content about society and good governance.
Outside of these narrow job types, it’s illegal (in the US) for employers to discriminate against job seekers based on their personal worldviews. It’s equally illegal for job interviewers to ask you politically or religiously-charged questions that could give them an opening to discriminate against you.
Do walk away from a job application if
Do walk away from a job application if
The interviewer asks illegal interview questions.
The interviewer asks legally gray questions that are relevant to the work they want you to do.
The interviewer keeps pestering you to share private information.
The interviewer is friendly and curious about your background.
The interviewer seems disorganized.
The interviewer respects your privacy and sincerely apologizes if they overstep their bounds.
The questions you ask HR during an interview are dismissed or ignored.
The interviewer answers your own questions honestly.
The interviewer displays irritation or anger towards you.
The interviewer uses provocative or denigrating language towards you.
1. US Equal Employment Opportunity laws forbid businesses from discriminating against employees on the basis of:
Place of Birth
Mental/Physical Health Conditions
2. Job interview questions that could enable these previously mentioned forms of workplace discrimination are also illegal.
3. Employers may ask limited questions about certain private affairs if they’d directly influence your ability to perform tasks at your prospective job.
4. Online job application forms may ask you questions about your race, ethnicity, gender, or disabilities in order to gather day for affirmative action programs.
5. Learn more about legal protections against workplace discrimination in the United States by visiting the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website.