Job interviews can be nerve wracking, especially when you have to deal with the added stress of being asked questions that you shouldn’t have to answer. There are many laws and guidelines surrounding employment in the United States, and some of them have to do with the proper procedure for interviewing job candidates.

Is it illegal for employers to ask me certain questions?

There is no law that prohibits employers from asking certain questions during interviews, however there are laws that imply that employers should refrain from doing so.

What questions should employers avoid?

During the interview process, employers should steer clear of asking applicants about their race, marital status, age, number of children, height or weight, financial situation, unemployment status, religious beliefs, citizenship, gender, disability, or medical history. Some of these questions include, but are not limited to:

  • How many children do you have? Do you plan on having more?
  • How much money do you have saved?
  • Do you believe in God?
  • Are you a citizen of the United States?
  • What race are you?
  • What is your ethnicity?
  • Are you in debt?

There are a few exceptions to these limitations. For example, an employer is allowed to ask about an employee’s unemployment status and factor their response in to the hiring decision as long as the employer does it without considering the applicant’s race, religion, sex, age, or any other personal information. Jobs that require a lot of manual physical labor may have certain height or weight requirements that need to be met in order to successfully do the job. In these situations, employers are allowed to use the information to make a hiring decision.

Why should employees avoid certain questions during interviews?

Interviews are used to judge whether or not someone is the right fit for an open position. The questions should determine whether the candidate has the mental and/or physical abilities needed to perform the job at hand. It is assumed that any question asked during an interview is used to make a hiring decision. Therefore, when an employer asks about a job candidate’s race, age, marital status or other irrelevant information, it is safe to assume that this information will be used to determine whether or not they should be hired. As it is against the law to base hiring decisions off of someone’s race, age, marital status, gender or other personal information, these questions should be avoided during the interview.

Is it ever acceptable for an employer to ask these questions?

Once you have been hired, it’s common for an employer to ask how many kids you have or if you’re married, just to get to know you and form a bond. You may also be asked for your personal information to fill out insurance or federal tax paperwork, and this is completely acceptable. As long as the information that you provide your employer is not used against you in a discriminatory manner, it is perfectly legal.

You may have noticed that you have been asked to answer these questions within some online applications. Some companies choose to ask applicants questions about race, ethnicity, gender and disabilities within online applications, not to discriminate against them but to track the flow of applicants. Companies also may be keeping track of applicants’ race for affirmative action purposes. In these situations, it is legal for employers to ask the questions, as long as they somehow separate the answers from the rest of the employment application. Some companies use online software that tracks the demographic information but does not send that portion of the application to the hiring manager. This way, employers get the information that they need without subconsciously or consciously discriminating against applicants based off of it.

What if a potential employer asks me a question that they shouldn’t?

Despite the fact that employers should not be asking potential new hires certain questions, some may still ask you something that they shouldn’t. In these situations, it’s your choice how you want to respond to the question. If you don’t mind providing the information, it’s acceptable to answer the question and move on with the interview.

However, if you don’t want to provide the information requested, there are a few options available. First, you can ask the employer why the question is relevant to the position that you’re interested in, and that may cause the employer to move on in the interview. If the employer explains why the question is relevant, you can answer it in a way that addresses the employer’s concern, but doesn’t directly answer the question. For example, if an employer asks you if you have any disabilities, and then explains that he just wants to ensure you are capable of doing the job, you can respond by stating that you are capable of doing the job without revealing any medical information. Another option would be to simply tell the interviewer that you do not feel comfortable answering the question at hand and ask him or her to move on to the next one.

Regardless of how you choose to handle it, you should take it as a red flag. If an employer cannot follow best practices when it comes to interviewing a job candidate, that may speak volumes about the rest of the company.

Should I report an employer who asks these questions?

Some employers may mistakenly ask these questions with no malicious intent, however there are others who are using the information to make illegal hiring decisions. If you believe that this is the case with the employer that you interviewed with, don’t hesitate to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You will be asked to provide your contact information as well as information about the employer and what exactly took place. Once a charge has been filed, the EEOC closest to you will begin investigating the claims that you’ve made. Depending on the severity of the charge, the EEOC may decide to pursue legal action against the employer or seek damages for any victims.