13 Illegal Job Interview Questions You Don’t Have to Answer

Federal law forbids employers from asking any questions that could be used in a discriminatory way.
Last updated Dec. 6, 2022 | By Will Vitka | Edited By Jacqueline Burt Cote
job interview between businessman hr director and female applicant

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Job hunting is hard and landing an interview with a prospective employer can be even harder. 

But did you know U.S. employers are forbidden by law from asking you certain questions during the interview? 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) laid out the rules for what you can and can’t be asked — and it all comes down to potential discrimination.

Here are 13 illegal job interview questions.

Age

Kateryna/Adobe mature hr manager listening and looks at a  resume of a new applicant

Age discrimination can cut both ways. Younger job seekers may get passed over for more experienced workers, and older workers may be passed over because younger candidates typically cost less. 

If you’re 40 or older, you’re shielded from being asked how old you are by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. It’s illegal for an employer to ask your age, when you were born, your birthday, or when you graduated high school since it can show your age. 

The exception is if an employee needs to meet legal requirements, like working in a bar, or if an applicant is under 18.

Arrests

Артем Константинов/Adobe  light flasher atop of a police car

The legality varies by state but interviewers shouldn’t ask applicants if they’ve ever been arrested. The EEOC explicitly says an employer can’t refuse to hire someone simply because they’ve been arrested because an arrest is not proof that a crime was committed. 

If an employer asks if a candidate has been convicted of a crime, that applicant should be ready to explain any criminal history.

Citizenship and national origin

ungvar/Adobe Passport on flag background

On the one hand, employers can find themselves in hot water if they hire someone who isn’t legally allowed to work in the U.S. However, they have to ask the question directly: “Are you authorized to work in the U.S.?” 

Asking if an applicant is a citizen, where they were born, or where their parents were born is illegal. 

Employers are also forbidden from asking if English is an applicant’s first language but they can ask if a candidate can read, write and speak in English.

Disabilities

shock/Adobe businesswoman presents a project to a young diverse team of people

Employers aren’t allowed to ask if an applicant has a disability or request a medical exam until after there’s a job offer. They can ask if an applicant can do the job with or without reasonable accommodation — like providing a wheelchair ramp.

Family and marital status

JenkoAtaman/Adobe happy family at home on couch

It’s illegal for employers to ask a candidate if they’re married, single, have children, plan to have children, are pregnant, or the employment status of a spouse. 

Those questions have been used to discriminate against women specifically. It’s only legal to ask if an applicant can perform the duties required for the job.

Financial situation

itchaznong/Adobe businessman holding saving account passbook with calculator

Employers are allowed to ask about your financial situation but they’re not allowed to discriminate based on that information. That includes questions about debt, credit, whether you rent or own property, or whether you have a car (unless it’s a job requirement). 

Furthermore, employers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to get written permission before running a background check.

Gender identity, sex, orientation

Rawpixel.com/Adobe gay couple hugging in the park

An interviewer cannot ask about a candidate’s gender identity, sex, or orientation. Discrimination against any employee based on gender identity, sex or orientation is in violation of Title VII, though only for companies with 15 or more employees.

Genetic information

angellodeco/Adobe doctor analyzing DNA sequence results

Employers are not allowed to ask about an applicant’s genetic information. That includes questions about an individual's genetic tests, information about the genetic test of a family member, or family medical history. 

Employers are also required to tell their own health care providers not to collect that information as part of any exams required for employment.

Height and weight

Brenda Blossom/Adobe person with socks getting on weight scale

Employers are forbidden from asking about an applicant’s height or weight because those questions “tend to disproportionately limit the employment opportunities of some protected groups,” according to the EEOC. 

It is possible for those requirements to be related to the job if an employer can prove it.

Military discharge

WavebreakMediaMicro/Adobe Mixed race military trainer giving training to military soldier

Employers are allowed to ask what branch of the military an individual served in, as well as how an applicant’s experience could help them perform the job they’re applying for, but they can’t ask a candidate about their discharge status or military records. 

There are a host of federal and state regulations designed to protect veterans’ rights.

Previous salary

pitipat/Adobe woman receiving salary from manager

There are no federal laws preventing an employer from asking about a candidate’s previous salary. There are state laws preventing it, though. In California, employers can’t ask. 

New York state has enacted a salary history ban. And some cities, such as Toledo, Ohio, have passed ordinances blocking the question.

Race, color

DisobeyArt/Adobe friends from different races

Title VII prohibits any kind of race or color discrimination from hiring, promotions, firing, and everything in between. 

Unless there is a business-related need to know that information, employers should not ask about an applicant’s race, color, or ethnic background.

Religion

ijeab/Adobe man praying with hands over the Bible

The EEOC describes questions about an individual’s religious affiliation or beliefs as generally not job-related and “problematic under federal law.” Interviewers should never ask you what religion you practice or what beliefs you have. 

Religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, and societies are exempt from this and can choose not to hire someone because of their religion.

Bottom line

Nejron Photo/Adobe young man attending job interview

If an employer decides to ask any of the above questions during an interview, it could lead to charges of discrimination and an investigation by the EEOC. If the issue can’t be resolved, it could also lead to a lawsuit.

Candidates are under no obligation to answer illegal questions, but they can put the interviewer on notice about a problematic question by pointing it out. An applicant can also contact their local EEOC field office and ask about filing a claim.

Retaliation against someone who files a complaint or a charge of discrimination is illegal. The EEOC has more information and resources for employees and prospective employees online.

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Author Details

Will Vitka Will Vitka is a D.C. area reporter and writer. He previously worked for WTOP, The New York Post, Stuff Magazine, and CBS News.