Because of their eagerness to be considered for gainful employment, many people may overlook certain improper interview questions. Depending on how they are asked, though, questions about personal topics, such as marital status, race, and health, are more than just poor manners; they are illegal under federal and some state and local laws.

Employers can use these types of questions to discriminate against applicants, and it is your right not to answer them. Here are eight questions a potential employer cannot ask you.

Key Takeaways

  • Depending on how they are asked, questions about personal topics, such as marital status, race, and health, can be illegal under federal and some state and local laws.
  • Some types of interview questions can be used to discriminate against applicants, and it is within your rights to refuse to answer them.
  • Questions such as, "Are you married?" "What religion do you practice?" and "Are you a U.S. citizen?" are considered unlawful, among others.

1. How Old Are You?

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects people 40 or older from being discriminated against in the workplace in favor of younger workers. The ADEA doesn't explicitly forbid asking a job applicant's age or birth date, but because such questions may indicate an intent to discriminate or discourage older workers from applying, they are closely scrutinized and can put employers at legal risk for age discrimination. There are no federal protections in place to protect workers younger than 40 from age discrimination. To determine if you are legally eligible to perform a job, employers are allowed to ask if you are over the age of 18.

2. Are You Married?

Questions about marital status are prohibited. Employers might be tempted to ask this question to find out if your relationship could have a negative impact on your work. For example, if you are married, you might be more likely to leave the company if your spouse gets a job transfer to a different city. Even a question as seemingly innocent as "Do you wish to be addressed as Mrs., Miss, or Ms.?" is not allowed.

3. Are You a U.S. Citizen?

Citizenship and immigration status cannot be used against a potential employee during the hiring process, according to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). Employers are required to file an Employment Eligibility Verification (I-9) Form for each employee on their payroll and submit documentation that proves identity and employment authorization, but they must wait until after a job offer has been extended to require a worker to complete the form. It is lawful, however, for an employer to ask an interviewee if they are authorized to work in the U.S.

As of 2021, 27 states and the District of Columbia have passed bans on asking job applicants about their salary history. One of the reasons behind the bans is that any information about current salary tends to perpetuate existing gender pay gaps. 

4. Do You Have Any Disabilities?

This question might seem necessary to determine if a job applicant can perform the required duties, but it is illegal to ask, under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Employers cannot discount anyone from a job because of a physical or mental disability. In fact, the law requires that employers accommodate a disability unless they can prove it would cause significant difficulty or expense to do so. Employers also cannot ask you if you have had any past illnesses or operations.

5. Do You Take Drugs, Smoke, or Drink?

Concerns about drug, alcohol, or nicotine addictions are valid as they can impact an employee's quality of work and the rates of a company's health insurance coverage. However, an employer might find themselves in legal trouble if they don't carefully frame questions about these potential problems. They are allowed to ask if you have ever been disciplined for violating company policies about the use of alcohol and tobacco products. They can also ask directly if you use illegal drugs, but they can't ask about your use of prescription medications.

6. What Religion Do You Practice?

Inquiries about religious beliefs are a sensitive issue. An interviewer might be curious to know, for scheduling reasons, whether an employee might need any religious holidays off, or if the candidate will be unavailable to work on weekends because of religious obligations. It is illegal to intentionally discriminate against an employee or harass them based on their religious beliefs.

Employers are required to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices with regard to dress and grooming or flexible scheduling.

7. What Is Your Race?

There is no situation in which questions about an employee's race or skin color should be used to determine their eligibility for a job. This protection is granted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Employers are permitted to ask an employee to reveal their race voluntarily for affirmative action purposes.

8. Are You Pregnant?

Questions about family status tend to affect women the most, but they can also pertain to men in certain situations. Employers might have concerns about an employee taking time off work for pregnancy leave or not having child care arrangements during work hours. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) states that an employer cannot refuse to hire a pregnant woman because of her pregnancy, because of a pregnancy-related condition, or because of the prejudices of co-workers, clients, or customers.

It is, however, lawful for employers to allay any concerns they might have about an employee's availability or commitment to a position by asking about long-term career goals or the ability for an employee to work overtime and travel.

The Bottom Line

It is important to know your rights as an employee. Unlawful questions are not acceptable on applications, during interviews, or in the workplace. Although improper questions by employers might be simple mistakes, they could also be intentional cases of discrimination that should be reported. It can be tricky when they come up in an interview. Try neutrally pointing out that you're not required to answer or ask how the question is directly related to the job. Then redirect the conversation. If the interviewer persists, you may ultimately decide you're better off pursuing a job at a different company.