Know Your Rights: Illegal Interview Questions You Shouldn’t Have to Answer

Questions, questions, and more questions. Your interviewer fires them at you, one straight after the other.

Yes, when you’re in a job interview, it’s all too easy to feel like you’re seated at a cold metal table in a dark room, while the hiring manager shines a flashlight in your eyes and asks all sorts of pressing questions that make the sweat tickle on your forehead.

You’re asked about your strengths, your weaknesses, the last time you solved a problem, when you overcame a difficult challenge, and how well you work on a team. It feels like nothing is off limits.

But, wait—that’s actually not true. In fact, there are plenty of questions that are completely illegitimate and that you should never be asked (let alone forced to answer) in any sort of job interview.

If we took the time to detail every single illegal or unethical interview question, you could likely wrap that list around the world—twice. And, of course, there’s no way for you to remember anything so cumbersome.

So, to make things easy, here’s the big thing you need to keep in mind: If the question doesn’t directly pertain to the position you’re interviewing for, you should be wary. And, ultimately, you absolutely have the power to decline answering anything that makes your stomach do backflips.

Now that you have the ground rules down, what sort of illegitimate and illegal job interview questions should you be aware of? We’ve pulled together seven of the most common ones. If one of them crops up during your interview, remember that you absolutely do not have to provide an answer (no matter how counterintuitive it may seem).

1. Are you married?

Sure, your relationship status is probably something this prospective employer could easily find out about you. However, that doesn’t mean they’re permitted to ask you directly about it in an interview situation.

Any question that attempts to dig into your current relationship status should be totally off limits. So, whether the interviewer asks if your last name is a married name or if the ring on your left finger is a wedding ring, don’t feel like you need to dive into the details of your personal life. That’s not what you’re there for.

2. Are you planning to have children in the next five years?

Similarly, this is another question that many women have been faced with in interviews. Employers attempt to glean some information about their family plans to determine whether that candidate will be around for the long haul or will shortly disappear on maternity leave.

This is another thing that simply isn’t the employer’s business. Yes, your kids may come up in small talk—and that’s fine, as long as you’re comfortable with it. But, you absolutely don’t need to directly address the current state of your family or your plans with the interviewer.

3. Can you tell us [something confidential] about your previous employer?

You may be looking for a new gig, but you still have a certain sense of allegiance to your previous or existing employer. And, more than likely, you have a signed contract that says you won’t release any proprietary information.

This means you need to beware of interviewers who attempt to dig confidential information out of you. Whether they want to know about a specific process, piece of technology, or anything else related to how that company does things, it’s best to keep your mouth shut (or you could find yourself in some serious hot water—even if the interviewer was the one who asked).

4. Do you have any medical conditions?

Some jobs come with certain physical requirements. And, interviewers are able to check those boxes in a more roundabout and legitimate way by asking questions like, “Are you capable of lifting 50 pounds?” That question relates directly to a requirement of the job, meaning it’s totally copacetic.

However, this doesn’t mean they get to know all of the intimate details of your medical history. If questions come up about any sort of conditions or ailments, simply explain that it’s not something you’re willing to discuss in a professional interview and move on.

5. What is your religious affiliation/sexual orientation/political preference?

This one should be painfully obvious. But, there are still plenty of employers out there who try to ascertain this sort of information during the interview process.

It goes without saying, if anything like this is asked in your interview, you are more than justified in explaining that you find the question inappropriate. And, after that? You probably want to evaluate whether or not this is really the sort of place you want to work.

6. How old are you?

Believe it or not, employers are not permitted to flat-out ask how old you are. Age discrimination is a real thing, and a few sneaky interviewers will pose some seemingly innocent questions—like asking when you graduated high school, for example—in an attempt to ascertain your age.

If you’re asked this, simply state that you’re over the age of 18 and legally able to work in the United States and leave it at that. Ultimately, that’s all they need to know.

7. Have you ever been arrested?

Don’t be confused—potential employers absolutely can ask if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime. However, they are not allowed to ask if you’ve ever been arrested. The two are entirely different.

You only have to disclose the crimes you were actually found guilty of and then sentenced for. So, that college mishap that your parents still love to remind you about? Well, put simply, nobody else (especially your interviewer) needs to know.

Job interviews are stressful enough without the threat of illegitimate and off-the-wall questions. Fortunately, those are the questions that you can decline to answer.

Keep these in mind when you head to your next interview so that you can politely shut down any that are inappropriate. And, remember, ultimately you can refuse to answer any question that makes you uneasy. It may not always feel like it, but you’re in the driver’s seat.

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Kat Boogaard

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Kat is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer covering topics related to careers, self-development, and entrepreneurship. Her byline has appeared in numerous outlets and publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, The Muse, QuickBooks, Business Insider, and more. Find out more about her on her website, or connect with her on Twitter.

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