The 5 Most Commonly Asked Illegal Interview Questions

By Adam Robinson,
December 21, 2011

I was recently at a law association conference, speaking on the topic of best practices in hiring and interviewing. Just as the presentation concluded, and satisfied that my content had been well received, a respected attorney I’d met on several prior occasions approached me to ask a final question:

“I ask every candidate who interviews with me if they’d been hit as a child. Why can’t I ask that?”

“What?!” I thought to myself. This was a sensible businessman. Yes, he could be outspoken, crass, even obnoxious at times, but definitely not crazy! Could he be serious? No, he’s just messing with me – this must be a joke. Wait… Yes. Yes, he is serious, I learned, as the perplexed look overwhelmed his face.

When my state of shock subsided, I responded, “How does that relate to success on the job?” According to employment law, interview questions are unacceptable if they don’t relate to the job at hand.

He replied, “I like to see how people react to being put on the spot.”

Realizing that I, too, had just fallen victim to his “put ’em on the spot” game, I told the man that there are plenty of perfectly legal ways to find out whether someone can think on their feet that don’t involve stories of child abuse. I half-jokingly told him to call me when he gets served his first lawsuit, and that we’d get him set up with Hireology right away.

While this was certainly an extreme example of bad interviewing, it dawned on me that illegal interview questions are really quite common. In fact, most clients we’ve spoken with with over the past several years ask at least one illegal question as a regular practice in their hiring process.

In hopes of preventing a 40 million dollar lawsuit (like the one famously paid by Abercrombie for religious discrimination), we thought we’d list the 5 most commonly asked illegal interview questions:

1. When did you graduate from college?

While this question gets asked during phone screens across the globe, it is technically not legal because it can often infer age. The Civil Rights Act prevents employment discrimination based on age. Instead, employers can ask questions like, “Do you have college degree?” Or, “Are you over the age of 18?”

2. Where did you grow up?

It’s illegal to discriminate based on national origin. Because of that, asking this particular interview question can, in many cases, lead to sensitive territory. To avoid this risk, ask “Are you legally eligible for employment in the US?” instead.

3. How many kids do you have?

Many employers ask this because they’re concerned about absenteeism. However, legally, an employer can not refuse to employ someone based on marital status, family status, or sexual orientation, and this question alludes to all of the above. An acceptable way to ask about absenteeism would be: “Do you have any commitments that could prevent you from meeting the work schedule we discussed?

4. Have you ever been arrested?

Nope, not allowed. Instead, ask “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” The difference between these questions looks to be minuscule, but one is legal and one is not. It’s better to be safe than sorry in this case.

5. Do you have a car?

Employers often ask this question in addition to “How long is your commute?” because they’re concerned that the candidate will need to be able to transport themselves frequently as part of the job. While on rare occasions, a car is actually necessary in order to do the job, most of the time the employer is really concerned with attendance. To avoid questions that may allude to a person’s current or past assets, ask questions like “Is there anything that could interfere with your ability to get to our clients’ office every Monday?”

Employment-related law suits are on the rise, and often the only way to be sure you’re protecting your business is to create interview scripts for your staff to follow. Hireology does this for you by ensuring that the phone screen and interview questions approved by your HR leaders are available to hiring managers to follow during their time with applicants.

Be sure your interview questions relate to the job at hand, and remember to ask the same questions to every candidate, every time to avoid legal scrutiny.

Be sure you’re business is not asking illegal interview questions. Download our free guide below to for some helpful tips!


About the Author

Adam co-founded Hireology with the mission to help growing companies make better hiring decisions through data and better technology. Adam is passionate about entrepreneurship, donating time to a number of organizations that support the entrepreneurial cause. Adam completed his undergraduate study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and received his MBA from DePaul University in Chicago, IL.

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