14 interview questions that are actually illegal

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Hiring managers use the job interview to learn as much about the candidate as possible. To do that, they ask lots of questions — including ones that seem harmless, but are completely illegal.

According to a new CareerBuilder survey conducted by Harris Poll, a whopping 20% of 2,192 hiring and human resource managers in the US indicated they have asked a candidate an illegal question. What’s worse, when the group of over 2,000 hiring managers was shown a list of illegal questions and asked whether they were legal, at least 33% said they weren’t sure.

While laws regarding job interview questions vary by state — some specifically prohibit certain questions, while others merely prohibit discrimination based on their answers — it’s important to know when you might be crossing the line.

“State and federal laws make discrimination based on certain protected categories, such as national origin, citizenship, age, marital status, disabilities, arrest and conviction record, military discharge status, race, gender, or pregnancy status, illegal,” Lori Adelson, Esq., a labour and employment attorney for employers and the founding member of Adelson Law in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, tells Business Insider. “Any question that asks a candidate to reveal information about such topics without the question having a job related basis will violate the various state and federal discrimination laws.”

However, she explains, “if the employer states questions so that they directly relate to specific occupational qualifications, then the questions may be legitimate. Clearly, the employer needs to be mindful of the intent behind the question.”

We compiled the following list of illegal interview questions, which are often mistaken as appropriate, from CareerBuilder, Adelson Law, a workplace law firm focusing on employment law solutions for business, and Joan K. Ustin & Associates, a consultant firm specializing in human resources and organisation development:

Vivian Giang contributed to an earlier version of this article.

Have you ever been arrested?

Federal law doesn't stop states from asking about criminal history, but some states make it illegal to ask about your arrest record.

Depending on the state, a conviction record shouldn't automatically disqualify you for employment unless it substantially relates to your job. For example, if you've been convicted of statutory rape and you're applying for a teaching position, you will probably not get the job.

Are you married?

Although the interviewer may ask you this question to see how much time you'd be able to commit to your job, it's illegal because it reveals your marital status and can also reveal your sexual orientation. However, in many states, it's still legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

What religious holidays do you practice?

Employers may want to ask you this to see if your lifestyle interferes with work schedules, but this question reveals your religion and that's unlawful.

They can ask you if you're available to work on Sundays or even better what days are you available to work.

Do you have children?

It is unlawful to deny someone employment if they have children or if they are planning on having children in the future.

If the employer wants to find out how committed you will be to your job, they should ask questions about your work. For example, 'What hours can you work?' or 'Do you have responsibilities other than work that will interfere with specific job requirements such as travelling?'

What country are you from?

If you have an accent, this may seem like an innocent question, but keep in mind that it's illegal because it involves your national origin.

Employers can't legally inquire about your nationality, but they can ask if you're authorised to work in a certain country.

When was the last time you used illegal drugs?

It's illegal for employers to ask you about past drug addiction, but they can ask you if you're currently using illegal drugs.

A person who is currently using drugs is not protected under ADA.

For example, an employer may ask you: Do you currently use illegal drugs? What illegal drugs have you used in the last six months?

How long have you been working?

This question allows employers to guess your age which is unlawful. The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act forbids questions about a person's age and other factors during the pre-employment process.

Similarly, they can't ask you what year you graduated from high school or college or even your birthday.

However, they can ask you how long you've been working in a certain industry. They can also ask you if you are over the age of 18 and/or what are you long-term career goals.

What type of discharge did you receive in the military?

State and Federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws do not prohibit employers from asking about the type of discharge someone received. They can, however, ask what type of education, training, or work experience you've received while in the military.

What is your political affiliation?

Under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, federal employers are prohibited from asking political party preference questions of federal employees and applicants. Although currently there are no federal laws that prohibit private employers from asking political affiliation questions, employers should probably refrain from asking such questions.

To reduce the risk of liability, typically employers should not ask any questions unrelated to the performance of a job or to a business need.

What is your race/colour/ethnicity/first language?

All of these questions are prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin.

An employer may want to be sure that a candidate can legally work for them but it is important to be careful how it is asked. You cannot ask are you a US citizen but you can ask whether the applicant is authorised to work in the US.

Are you pregnant?

Employers who ask this question typically are engaging in a form of Family Responsibility Discrimination. In particular, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The Family and Medical Leave Act prohibits discrimination against pregnant women and parents who take leave from their employment to care for a newborn baby.

However, it is perfectly lawful for an employer to ask whether you anticipate any absences from work on a regular basis. They may also ask whether you will be able to travel or work overtime on short notice.

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