Questions Not to Ask in an Interview: A Hiring Manager’s Guide

Posted: May, 1, 2019 | Categories: Interviewing and Hiring


As an employer, you have a legal obligation to treat all candidates fairly during the interview process. An interview is a fantastic opportunity to ask questions about a candidate’s behavior, skills, and experience to learn if they are a fit for the job; however, you can’t just ask any question you want. Questions about a candidate’s race, religion, or gender (among many other things) could result in discrimination charges against you and your company, and even an investigation by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or a lawsuit.

Fair hiring practices have been in effect since The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and since then, even more hiring laws have been put into place to protect candidates from discrimination in the interview and selection process. Your interview questions should focus on finding out if the candidate has the strengths and behaviors necessary for the job and should stay away from personal questions that could make your company liable in a discrimination lawsuit. The best way to prevent yourself from violating these laws is to know what sort of information is protected and which questions NOT to ask.


Protected Classes and Information

  • Affiliations: Social organizations, union membership, or relevant professional associations
  • Age: The exception to this is when there is a legal age requirement for the role. You may ask for proof on the application that they are of that legal age.
  • Alcohol or Drug Use: It is illegal to ask a candidate about their legal alcohol or drug use. You can, however, ask if a candidate uses illegal drugs.
  • Criminal Record
  • Race, ethnicity, or genetic background
  • Gender or sex: Never make gender-related assumptions about job capabilities
  • Country of national origin or birthplace: You can ask about language fluency, but ONLY if it is relevant to job performance.
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Marital/family status or pregnancy
  • Personal: You cannot ask questions related to someone’s appearance, home ownership, or personal financial situation
  • Pay History


Salary History Bans

In recent years, questions regarding a candidate’s pay history have become illegal in several cities and states across the U.S. These laws are put into place to protect candidates from pay discrimination and the number of states that consider financial history considered to be protected information is rapidly increasing. Using salary history in the hiring process can have major repercussions in perpetuating pay discrimination many people face in their careers. Relying on pay history to set future salary assumes that prior salaries were fairly established, but this is not always the case, and this is why these laws are now in place.

You can find a list of the cities and states affected by these new laws in the Salary History Bans article on HRDive. As this law will only continue to be implemented in various states before it is nationally recognized, companies should be adjusting their interview procedures now (rather than later) to exclude discussion of a candidate’s salary history.


Avoid Accidental Illegal Questions

The key to avoiding un-wanted legal backlash is to avoid questions pertaining to these protected classes altogether. Even seemingly harmless questions related to the topics could potentially lead to a lawsuit. The following are some questions that might seem safe to ask, but are actually illegal:

  • What are you making at your current job?
  • Where did you live while you were growing up?
  • Are you comfortable working for a male/female boss?
  • Were you ever discharged from the U.S. military?
  • Are you a member of the local country club?
  • Do you own a car?
  • When did you first start working?
  • Do you own a home or rent?
  • Are you married?
  • Do you have children?
  • What year did you graduate high school?
  • Do you like to drink on the weekends?
  • Have you ever been arrested? (You CAN ask if the candidate has been convicted of a crime after a conditional offer is made, just not if they were arrested.)


What if Any of This Information is Offered/Volunteered?

Some candidates might volunteer sensitive information related to one of these topics. When this happens, that’s okay. It’s just your job as the employer to not pursue it any further, make note of, or base decisions on the volunteered information. Due to the sensitivity of the information, it needs to be eliminated as a discussion point and selection factor.


Can I Ask _____ ?

Still unsure if you can ask your candidates a certain question? We’ve come up with this simple flow chart to help you determine whether your next set of interview questions are legal.


By JWilliams Staffing

Sign Up For The JWilliams Staffing Newsletters, Tips & Trends

By signing up today you will receive our blog and email updates!
You can also opt out at any time



© Copyright 2024, JWilliams Staffing. All Rights Reserved.