16 Interview Questions That Can Get You In Trouble

March 15, 2016

Nobody wants to get sued.

That’s a given. And if you ask any of the 16 following questions in a job interview, you are risking exactly that. All of them infringe on laws that protect workers, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

So, if you ask them, a candidate could sue you. And they could win.

But, even if they don’t sue you, these are terrible questions to ask. They all are about matters that don’t directly relate to the offered job and can make some people feel uncomfortable. Obviously, that’ll hurt your employer brand, but more importantly, you should (hopefully) strive to make people feel comfortable and accepted.

So, here are the 16 questions you cannot ask a job candidate during a job interview, from a legal perspective. And nor should you want to.

1. Are you a United States citizen?

You can’t ask this question, nor can you ask where a person was born or if they speak a language that is unrelated to the offered job.

Instead, you can ask if a person is authorized to work in the United States.

2. Have you ever been arrested?

This is where semantics matter. You can generally ask someone if they’ve been convicted of a crime. You cannot ask someone if they’ve been arrested, because an arrest is simply an allegation and innocence is assumed until proven guilty.

Regulations regarding this question change from country to country and state to state, so it's worth checking what exactly you can ask in your region.

3. Do you have any children?

This is the sort of question that can come up innocuously enough, while making small talk with a candidate. But you really shouldn’t ask it.

If you end up rejecting the candidate, they could argue that you denied them the job because they have children and this is against the law. Even if this is not the case, you’ll have to prove that in court.

There’s a good chance a candidate will bring up their children on their own, which is fine. But best practice is to bring the conversation back to the subject of work.

4. Are you married?

Here’s another one that can creep up in a casual conversation. But it's potentially unlawful, both because it obviously reveals the candidate’s marital status, and potentially their sexual orientation.

Again, the candidate might bring up their significant other on their own, and that’s fine. But try to bring the conversation back to the offered position, if you can.

5. Are you pregnant?

This could come up innocently enough, particularly if the candidate is obviously pregnant. But don’t ask it (you should never ask this question, anyway, for lots of reasons).

Like the previous two examples, if the candidate brings it up, be polite, and then try to steer the conversation back to work.

6. Is English your first language?

This is essentially asking someone about his or her ethnic background, which is not permitted. You can ask if they can speak and write in English (or any other language that relates to the job) fluently; just not if it’s their first language.

7. Will your religion conflict with working here on Sundays?

Instead, give the hours the candidate will be expected to work, and ask them if that works for them. But don’t assume the reason why it wouldn’t; just ask if they are comfortable working those hours.

8. How tall are you, about 6’5”?

You can’t ask how tall someone is. Or how much they weigh, either. Or what kind of shape they are in.

That said, you could ask if they have the physical ability to do the job. So you could ask them if they can lift 50 pounds or if they can reach a shelf that’s six feet high, if that is truly part of the job.

9. Do you have a drinking problem?

Interestingly enough, in the United States you actually can ask a candidate if they currently have a problem with illegal drugs, as the Americans With Disability Act does not protect against that (not that you should). However, you cannot ask candidates if they might have alcoholism, as that is protected by the ADA.

You can also require candidates to take a drug test (which is probably more effective than asking them if they use illegal drugs).

10. When did you graduate high school?

Think this is a clever way to ask someone how old they are? It isn’t. This question isn’t allowed. That said, you can ask someone how many years of relevant work experience they have.

11. What’s your gender?

An absolute no-go. Same with asking someone what race they are or about their sexual orientation.

12. Were you dishonorably discharged from the military?

You can ask a veteran about the type of training, education and experience they had in the military. But you can’t ask about the nature of their discharge.

13. So, who are you voting for?

Many people probably wish that politics were banned from work, but thankfully they are banned from job interviews. Stay away from this one, even if you think it might relate to the job.

14. How many sick days did you take last year?

Not allowed, mainly because it is an around-the-bush way of asking someone about their medical history or if they are disabled.

You also can’t ask someone directly if they are disabled.

15. What clubs or organizations do you belong to?

You can ask someone if they belong to any professional groups that are relevant to the offered job. But you can’t ask what organizations or clubs they belong to, as technically “private” clubs are out-of-bounds.

Why? Think about it – what if the candidate is part of Alcoholics Anonymous, as an example. Or an LGBT Alliance. Answering this question might give up information the candidate would rather not share and isn’t particularly relevant.

16. Do you have any debt?

Companies actually can (and do) run credit checks on applicants. Most of the time, for example, someone’s credit is checked if they are applying for a job dealing with finances.

But don’t bring up debt or a credit score in an interview.

A general rule-of-thumb to follow: If it doesn’t relate directly to the job, don’t ask it.

Regulations change from country to country, so there might be questions you can't ask in some places that you can ask in others. But, if you are unsure whether you can ask a question or not, a good rule-of-thumb is to ask yourself this: Does the question relate directly to the job and the candidate’s ability to perform a specific task associated with that job?

If it does, you are probably okay. If it doesn’t, than it probably isn’t. And, if it is personal or non-work related in any way, it almost certainly isn’t good to ask. 

*Image by Andrew Scott

To receive blog posts like this one straight in your inbox, subscribe to the blog newsletter.

Topics