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Inappropriate Interview Questions

Questions to avoid during your next interview

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Inappropriate Interview Questions

Interviews can be a stressful experience for all parties involved, but they serve a great purpose to both the interviewer and interviewee. Interviews give you the opportunity to learn a great deal about your applicants on a personal and professional level. Asking thoughtful questions gives candidates the opportunity to expand on their qualifications and understanding of the role, and create great dialogue which will help better understand their personalities and perspectives. 

But it’s not difficult to slip into dangerous territory when interviewing, especially when there’s no preparation or guidelines involved. Amateur and veteran interviewers may be unaware of the magnitude of some of the interview questions they are asking, and that means they’re unknowingly putting their business at risk. You may think you’ve avoided inappropriate interview questions, but there are regulations in place that you may not be aware you’re offending. Even seemingly harmless questions like “when did you graduate from college?” are actually walking the line of illegal interview questions. 

The questions interviewers ask have quite a bearing on how comfortable the interviewee feels, so avoiding inappropriate questions is not only legally necessary, but essential to finding great talent as well.

In this blog, we’ll walk you through examples of appropriate vs inappropriate interview questions and legal vs illegal interview questions, give you tips on training your hiring managers on appropriate interviewing, and walk you through what to do if you’re asked an illegal interview question in an interview. 

What are illegal questions to ask in an interview?

I was recently told by a colleague the following story: “I was asked my age in a job interview for a different company years ago. It made me feel uncomfortable and even though I didn’t want to answer, I felt like I had to.” 

This particular question came up in conversation during the interview, so it didn’t come exactly out of left field, but regardless, the question was not appropriate. Asking someone’s age is illegal based on the Age Discrimination Act, so whether the question came up naturally in conversation or not, it’s still considered an illegal interview question. So what are illegal questions to ask in an interview? Here’s a list of 20 illegal interview questions you should avoid asking in your next interview:

  1. How old are you?
  2. How many children do you have?
  3. What religion are you?
  4. What are some of the clubs you’re associated with?
  5. Do you have pre-school children?
  6. Do you have a car?
  7. Do you have any disabilities? 
  8. What is your national origin?
  9. What were you making in your last role?
  10. Where are your parents from?
  11. Are you pregnant?
  12. Have you ever filed for workers’ compensation?
  13. Have you had any prior work injuries?
  14. When did you graduate from high school or college?
  15. What was your previous address?
  16. How long did you reside there?
  17. How long have you lived at your current address?
  18. Do you own your own home?
  19. Have you ever declared bankruptcy?
  20. Have you ever been arrested? 

Some of these questions are more obvious illegal interview questions examples, but some are questions that you’ve either asked yourself or have been asked. Through conversation, it’s easy to want to inquire about the number of kids or clubs your candidate is a part of, but these questions can be seen as discriminatory and can result in legal fines for your organization. 

Can an employer ask about your personal life?

Asking personal questions during an interview can be tricky, so it’s essential to know what you can and cannot ask — and make sure your team knows it, too. It’s easier than you may think to get carried away with questions, so preparation is essential and each interviewer should come prepared with a list of questions to ask. That way, there’s less room for error. While conversation can take things in a different direction, it’s the interviewer’s responsibility to keep away from inappropriate discussion. 

If you’re wondering “can an employer ask about your personal life?”, the answer is a little murky. There are some things an employer is permitted to ask you about, and some things that are off limits, and in the age of COVID-19, new laws and regulations are popping up frequently. 

It’s important to know your rights as a candidate and employee, and if questions from the above list arise during your interview, you have the right to report them (stay tuned for how). 

In the case of an interviewer asking personal questions that fall outside of the above list, you should ask yourself if you feel comfortable answering. If the question, for example, is “what are some of your hobbies or interests?”, the interviewer is likely trying to get to know your personality. But if the interviewer asks “are you taking any prescription medication?”, that’s a question that you don’t have to — and shouldn’t — answer. 

It is a fine line between appropriate and inappropriate interview questions, but interviewers should know what questions are off limits. And just to be safe, stick to questions about the job qualifications and responsibilities so that you don’t accidentally walk into dangerous territory.


How to answer illegal interview questions

If you are ever put in the unfortunate circumstance of being asked an inappropriate or illegal interview question, it’s best to familiarize yourself with a suitable way to respond. It may seem like you have to answer all the questions an interviewer asks if you want to get the job, so you may feel uncomfortable being put in this situation. So here’s a few examples of how to answer illegal interview questions and how to answer inappropriate interview questions:

  • Answer the question, but keep your response as broad as possible.
  • Answer the intent of the question. I.e. if the interviewer asks, “What clubs are you associated with?” you can respond “I like to paint and read in my free time, if that’s what you’re asking.” 
  • Ask the interviewer how this is relevant to the role.
  • Redirect the conversation back to your experience or qualifications.
  • Simply say that you’re not comfortable answering the question.
  • You can opt to end the interview if you’re not comfortable continuing.

If the interviewer is asking inappropriate questions, like “can you wear more makeup?” or something of that nature, you can use the same tactics listed above, but definitely consider if this is a good employer to work for. Questions like that are completely out of bounds, and there are plenty of companies out there that would never ask such questions and truly value their candidates.

And in the case when a question is illegal or made you feel uncomfortable and you want to report it, here’s how to report illegal interview questions:

  • You can reach out to the recruiter or an HR team member to file an informal complaint. They may ask you follow up questions, so be prepared to explain exactly what was asked. 
  • You can make a formal complaint by contacting the local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Tip: If this is the route you decide to go, make sure to file quickly. 

Questions you can ask in an interview

So we went deep into inappropriate and illegal interview questions that you should definitely not ask during an interview, but what are some questions you can ask in an interview? The answer is there are plenty. Questions that revolve around a candidate’s qualifications and work experience are the best questions to ask, but you can still get creative to try to better understand their personality as well. 

Here’s a list of 20 good and legal questions to ask in an interview: 

  1. Tell me about your background.
  2. How did you hear about this position and why do you think you’d be a good fit?
  3. What are some unique skills you’ll bring to this role?
  4. What’s a great professional accomplishment that you’re proud of?
  5. Why are you leaving your current position?
  6. What are some qualities you expect from leadership?
  7. Tell me about a time you made a mistake.
  8. What type of work environment do you prefer?
  9. What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?
  10. What kind of management style do you prefer?
  11. What qualities do you look for in senior leadership?
  12. Where do you hope to be in five years?
  13. What’s your greatest achievement?
  14. How do you keep yourself organized?
  15. Why do you want to work for this company?
  16. What’s something that’s not on your resume that you think I should know about?
  17. What’s a common misconception about you? 
  18. How would your best friend describe you in three words or less?
  19. What makes working in this industry interesting to you? 
  20. What gets you excited about coming to work? 

The most important thing to remember when conducting interviews is that your candidates are evaluating you, too. So make sure your questions and attitude are appropriate so that you’ll be able to find top talent that’s excited to become a part of your team. 

Need more interview and hiring help? Hireology’s got you covered. Schedule a demo today to see how we can help you revamp your pre- and post-hire processes.