12 Questions You Can't Ask During the Hiring Process

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Interviews are an essential component in the employee selection process. Not only do interviews give you a chance to meet employees and identify any weak points or knowledge gaps, but it helps you identify candidates who fit into your company culture and resonate with the core values you've established. HBR data suggests that the average interview length has doubled since 2009, and the average hiring process takes a massive 22.9 days to complete.

We all want to hire the right person. But what happens when you ask the wrong questions? There are plenty of questions you're allowed to ask during an interview that can help you identify the appropriate candidates. There are also plenty of questions you can ask that introduce interviewer bias. Believe it or not, there are plenty of questions that you aren't legally allowed to ask candidates.

Here are 12 questions you can't ask during the hiring process.

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1. When Did You Graduate?

Age-related discrimination charges have doubled since the early 1990s. One in four Americans over the age of 65 admit to receiving negative comments about their age from their supervisors or managers. While asking a person's age in an interview may seem harmless, it has the potential to introduce age bias — even if that bias isn't deliberate.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (the ADEA) specifically prevents you from asking the age of potential hires. But there's an exception. You can ask if an employee is legally old enough to work for you. Simply asking a person's age can open you up to lawsuits, which can result in millions of dollars in punitive damages.

Acceptable question regarding age:

  • Are you 18 years of age or older?

2. What is Your Race?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Act (EEOA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibit you from asking any questions that can lead to discrimination. This includes questions about race. Often, these aren't direct questions about race. Employers may ask seemingly harmless questions like, "Where is your family originally from?" During the interview process, it's natural to build a rapport. You have to be mindful that you don't accidentally ask questions surrounding race — whether you meant to or not.

There are no acceptable questions regarding race. However, applicants can voluntarily fill out Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) information.

3. Where is That Accent From?

That's an interesting accent...where is it from? Seems like an innocent question, right? Unfortunately, asking this in an interview could land you in hot water. Again, ethnicity is covered in the EEOA. You cannot ask identifying questions that could potentially be used for discrimination.

There are no acceptable questions regarding ethnicity.

4. Are You Male or Female?

You cannot ask the gender or sex of an individual during the hiring process. There are some very niche exceptions to this (e.g., you operate in a business with a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) relating to gender, such as a female prison). But nearly every business should outright avoid asking questions relating to gender. Title VII considers both gender and sex to be "non-job-related" and thus unnecessary (and illegal) to ask.

There are no acceptable questions regarding gender/sex unless a BFOQ exists.

5. What is Your Sexual Orientation?

You cannot ask any questions regarding sexual orientation. This one can be tricky. Simply asking if someone has a significant other or asking them what their family is like can lead to identifying information about sexual orientation. To avoid this, stay entirely away from any questions surrounding a person's private or family life. 

There are no acceptable questions regarding sexual orientation.

6. What Country Are You a Citizen Of?

You can ask if a person is legally allowed to work in the United States. You can't ask where they're from. Again, this can introduce bias. Steer clear of questions like:

  • Of what country are you a citizen?
  • Do you own or rent a home?
  • What is your lineage?
  • Who are your parents?
  • Is this address you listed foreign?

All of these are unlawful questions.

Acceptable questions regarding country of origin or birthplace:

  • What is your place of residence?
  • How long have you been a resident of this city?
  • Do you have any foreign language skills that are relevant to the job?

7. Do You Attend Church?

Never ask an applicant for any information regarding their religious beliefs or affiliations. Don't ask them what religious holidays they observe or will take off work to attend. And certainly don't ask them if they attend church.

There are no acceptable questions regarding religion.

8. Do You Have Any Medical Conditions That We Need to Be Aware Of?

You are not allowed to ask about a person's current or past health issues, disabilities, or mental illness. Most often, we see the following questions (which are illegal) asked about this subject:

  • Do you need reasonable accommodations?
  • Have you ever filed a workers' comp claim?
  • Do you have any conditions that would impact your ability to work?

Acceptable questions regarding disabilities include:

  • Is there any reason why you wouldn't be able to perform the duties of this job?

9. Are You Married?

You cannot ask if an applicant is single, divorced, or separated. You also can't ask if they're widowed, in a relationship, or have a maiden name. These can all be used for discrimination, and these are all illegal questions.

There are no acceptable questions regarding marital status.

10. Are You Planning on Having Children?

Similar to marital status, family status is a no-go. You can't ask if someone needs childcare accommodations, and you can't ask how many dependents or children an applicant has. There are no questions regarding their family, relationships, or relatives you can ask during the interview.

Acceptable questions regarding status:

  • Is there any reason you wouldn't be able to work this job's schedule?

11. Are You Pregnant?

This one is simple. You cannot ask if someone is pregnant or on birth control. In addition, you can't ask if someone plans on taking maternity leave.

There are no acceptable questions regarding pregnancy.

12. How Much Money Did You Make at Your Last Job?

According to California Labor Code Section 432.3, you cannot ask an employer about past salary information during the interview. This includes information about past benefits.

There are no acceptable questions regarding salary history in the state of California.

You Need Help

It's easy to get into dangerous territory during interviews. You're building a rapport with someone, finding out what makes them valuable to your organization, and trying to uncover any hidden flaws that would impact their job capabilities. Unfortunately, this makes it easy to ask the wrong questions. The easiest way to avoid this issue is to develop a standardized interview process that asks each candidate identical, skill-based questions. We recommend working closely with your outsourced HR partner to develop an interview process that avoids illegal questions while informing you of a candidate's overall fit with your company.

Follow our blog to learn more about the HR hiring process.

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