Good To Know: What You Can't Ask When Hiring

A smiling man interviewing a candidate at a table.
| 08.22.22
Susan G.

When hiring new talent, nothing is more informative than an interview. It is your chance to gauge whether the candidates meet your skill level needs and would enjoy your business culture. An interview is not without its pitfalls, though. It is essential to understand that there are illegal questions for an employer to ask, for example. We cover those for you here. When hiring, don’t ask these illegal job interview questions…

Illegal Hiring Questions

Do you believe in Jesus? Danger, Will Robinson. Any question about religion (including whether they have any) is illegal (unless the religion is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ)). You are welcome to ask if the candidate can work the schedule you’ve determined for the position, touch any products that will need to be touched, and whether they can work in your place of business if that is necessary, for example. Under EEOC laws, an employer is required to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause difficulty or expense for the employer.

Are you a US citizen? It is illegal to ask about someone’s citizenship, birthplace, and country of origin! Add to the list any questions about race, color, or ethnicity. You do need to know if you can hire the candidate. A legal question is, “Are you authorized to work in the US?” Perhaps you’ve seen that phrasing as a checkbox on job applications. And while an I-9 form reveals that information, conducting the Form I-9 or E-Verify process before the employee has accepted an offer of employment is illegal

How old are you? Questions related to age are illegal, so don’t try to trick the system by asking how long someone has until they retire or the like. Stick with questions specific to their experience and the position. For example, you can say, “Tell me about your experience with Python programming.” You are allowed to ask if someone is 18 or older if that is part of the job requirement. You are not allowed to ask when someone was born, what their birth date is, or what year they graduated from high school during the hiring process.  

Do you have kids? Back away from any and all questions about a person’s family, including whether they have a partner or children or are primary caregivers to their parents or siblings. Don’t ask the name of their spouse or their kids. Marital status, family, and pregnancy are all illegal to inquire about during an interview. Does the job require work or overtime? You are welcome to ask if the candidate would be able to accommodate travel, weekend hours, or overtime… if those are genuinely relevant to the position.

Do you have any disabilities or health problems? While you can inquire whether a candidate can fulfill the job functions, that has to include “with reasonable accommodations.” Overall, it is illegal to ask about a person’s health generally or specifically, and it is illegal to ask about or discuss any disabilities. According to the EEOC, “Employers are explicitly prohibited from making pre-offer inquiries about disability.” You cannot ask about height and weight unless you demonstrate that it is crucial to the position. You also cannot ask an applicant to answer medical questions before making a job offer, and an applicant has started work.

Be aware that additional state or local laws about illegal interview questions may also exist, and that this list is not exhaustive. It is also important to note that while many other questions are legal, like employment status, they cannot be used to discriminate and must be used consistently. That is the nature of the laws: avoiding discrimination.

Now that we’ve covered some important illegal questions to ask in an interview, let’s take a look at what you can say during an interview to help you find the right candidate for your open position!

  • Tell me about a time when things didn’t go your way in your career.
  • Describe yourself in three words.
  • What is your favorite project you’ve worked on and why?
  • What work accomplishment are you most proud of?
  • Do you prefer more autonomy or more collaboration?
  • What did you like about your last job or a past job?
  • How much experience do you have with [fill in the blank]?
  • Have you ever worked at a start-up before?

We hope this gets your wheels turning so you can avoid discrimination and find the most qualified candidate to fill your position!

Editor’s Note: For more hiring how-to information, check out our post: Starting a Business Series: Hiring How To. This article also has some helpful hiring tips: Small Business Hiring Tips For A Competitive Market.

Questions about an applicant's sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy), marital status, medical history of pregnancy, future child bearing plans, number and/or ages of children or dependents, provisions for child care, abortions, birth control, ability to reproduce, and name or address of spouse or children are generally viewed as not job-related and problematic under Title VII unless a defense or exception applies. -EEOC

About the Author

B2Z Insurance is a small business insurance company that provides coverage for on-the-go business owners: simple explanations, easy application, digital quotes, and mobile claims. A product that is easy-to-use and helps you assess the unique coverage needs of your business with confidence—freeing you up to grow your business.