Illegal Interview Questions and How to Answer Them

Illegal Interview Questions and How to Answer Them

The questions are fairly common, but the answers are anything but easy. What year were you born? Are you married? Are you planning to have a family? As a job seeker, how are you supposed to handle these illegal interview questions?

Whether out of ignorance or willful disregard for the law, interviewers can sometimes ask interview questions of job candidates that are not legal. Any question an interviewer asks should relate to your work skills and your experience.


Interview questions that aren’t about your ability to do the job are, for the most part, off-limits.

However, sometimes an interviewer asks a question that seems like a “getting to know you” question. It might be something like, “What do you like to do on weekends?” “What kinds of hobbies do you have?” “How long have you lived here?” While innocent on the surface (and they likely are), without realizing it, you could be answering an illegal interview question.

Why would an employer ask illegal interview questions?

Believe it or not, sometimes an interviewer doesn’t realize they’re asking an illegal question. Sometimes, there is something legitimate the interviewer is trying to find out—they are just asking it in a really wrong way. So, when a question that strikes you as illegal pops up, don’t assume your interviewer is breaking the law.

Brie Reynolds, career coach at FlexJobs, recommends considering the motives behind the question. “Most of the time (the interviewer) is not aware that what they’re asking is illegal. So, if you can reframe the question to get at the root of their potential concern, then address that reframed question, you can answer the question with grace and good information.”

For example, if the interviewer asks what religious holidays you observe, they might be trying to gauge how many days off work you might need in a given year. So, instead of telling them your religious views, tell them that you’ll be available to work the normal schedule required by the position.

However, if the interviewer isn’t satisfied with your answer, you may need to consider that the interviewer doesn’t care that it is an illegal question. You could try reframing the question again and ask, “Can I ask how this question relates to the job duties?” This may be enough to get the interviewer to drop the question and move on.

“If you get the sense that the interviewer is well aware that they’re asking an illegal question,” Reynolds continues, “it’s also worth considering whether you ultimately want to work at a company with such poor recruiting practices. It might be an indication that the rest of the company isn’t managed well, either.”

What questions are illegal and why?

Employers are not allowed to ask you about:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Birthplace
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Marital/family status

In some places, asking about salary is also illegal.

Let’s start with why employers shouldn’t ask about these things. They are protected characteristics under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If a company is asking for any of this information, it could be perceived that the answers are playing a part in the hiring decisions.

That said, some interviewers may ask the questions anyway. If that happens, point out to the interviewer that you’re aware that the question is illegal. Use a neutral and professional tone. By pointing it out, you are putting the employer on alert that you’re aware the question is off-limits.

If they continue to ask the illegal question, you do have the right not to answer the question. And, you can always walk away from the interview.

That said, a potential employer may want to know this information about you. And, sometimes, an interviewer may ask some tricky questions that get you to reveal this information even when you don’t want to.

Illegal interview questions and how to answer them.

Just because an employer is asking these questions, doesn’t mean that their motives are impure. An interviewer may very well be interested in your answers because you are an interesting person and they want to know more about you.

However, even if that is the case, you may end up giving the interviewer information that could potentially bias them against you.

Have you ever been arrested?

While an interviewer cannot ask you about your arrest record or any involvement in political demonstrations, it is perfectly legal for an interviewer to ask you about any convictions on your record.

It’s also legal for an interviewer to ask you if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime that’s directly related to the job duties. For example, if you’re applying for a job that involves handling a cash register, it is legal for the interviewer to ask if you’ve ever been convicted of theft.

Assuming you’ve never been convicted of a crime, you can answer the question by clarifying that you have no convictions on your record. Or you can choose to tell the interviewer that there’s nothing in your past that will impact your ability to do the job.

Do you go to church on Sundays?

Assuming the employer is asking every candidate this question, it is okay to ask about weekend availability if it is a requirement of the job. A good response would be, “I can work weekends if needed” or “I am available for some weekend shifts, but would love some flexibility in the schedule for other commitments.” That said, asking somebody’s religious affiliation is an illegal interview question that candidates should be aware of.

Is English your first language?

While your language skills may very well be pertinent to the position, this question speaks to a person’s nationality—that’s a no-no. Give the interviewer a rundown of all the languages that you speak, write, and read fluently.

I noticed you limping a bit when you came in. Is everything okay?

The main concern here is your ability to do the job, but that’s unfortunately not what they’re literally asking. The interviewer may be trying to express a genuine concern for your well-being, but unfortunately, this question could speak to a disability.

Rather than disclosing any disabilities or health issues, which you do not have to do, you can address that underlying concern. Feel free to respond with something along the lines of, “Thanks for asking. It’s nothing that impacts my ability to do the job!” Then you might tell them a story about a time when you were able to perform well while handling a lot of responsibility or stress or juggled multiple projects.

Are you planning on starting a family?

This illegal interview question is a problem because it’s much more often posed to women than it is to men. But what the employer is trying to ascertain is whether you’ll be committed to the job and your career. A great answer to this would be, “I’m not there yet. I am interested in the possibilities for growth and career development with the company. Can you tell me about it?”

When did you graduate?

There are times when it is legal to ask about an applicant’s age. For example, if you’re applying for a bartending position, the interviewer can ask you if you’re of legal age and require you to prove it. Some jobs have a mandatory retirement age, and it is legal to ask if you are younger than that age.

But, in most cases, it is illegal to ask about your age. So, how do you tackle this question?

First, remember that the employer likely already knows your approximate age. You probably have dates you attended and finished school on your resume. However, the interviewer may still be trying to pinpoint your age. They may be trying to determine how long you might stay at the job before you retire. Or, they may be wondering how their group insurance will be impacted if you’re older and have more health issues.

You could use some humor to start. “Inside I feel like I’m 21!” or “Age is just a number!” However, if the interview is pressing you to answer the question, you could say, “I’m confident my age will not impact my job performance.”

Why did you leave the military?

If you served in the military, it is legal for an interviewer to ask you about the branch you were in and your rank. It’s also legal to ask about any education or experience you gained during your time in the military.

However, an interviewer cannot ask you about your type of discharge or your military records. The exception to this is if that information is relevant to the job (for example, if you need a security clearance).

While you can choose to answer the question directly, you also have the right to say that there’s nothing in your military record that would impact your ability to do your job.

Getting to know someone is tricky.

The interview process is tricky for both sides. The company is trying to figure out if you’re the right person for the job and you’re trying to figure out if the company is the right place for your career. Questions must be asked from both sides to figure out if this is a perfect match or something to pass.

Of course, a job interview isn’t the same as a first date, so certain questions are always off-limits. But, when faced with dicey interview questions, a little bit of redirection and asking for clarity might help you figure out if someone means well, or has other intentions.

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Carol Cochran and Brie Reynolds contributed to this article. 

This is a version of an article that was originally published on October 8, 2013. 

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