When it’s time to hire new talent for your company’s learning and training team, does the person or committee in charge know what they can and cannot ask during hiring interviews? All too often, organizations just assume that the manager within the department knows everything they need to know about hiring. In reality, that is rarely the case. One area where this becomes glaringly obvious is the candidate interview. It’s surprising how often questions are asked during interviews that not only shouldn’t be asked but are even illegal to ask. This means there can be genuine consequences for your company if you’re not careful (as in an expensive discrimination lawsuit). This article serves as a “cheat sheet” concerning what not to ask during hiring interviews.

Some questions are unacceptable to ask a job applicant during an interview.


Equal Opportunity Employment Policies Apply to Hiring Interviews

You’ve undoubtedly seen various forms of equal opportunity employment policies of different companies. They tend to include language such as “…provides equal employment opportunities to all employees and applicants for employment and prohibits discrimination and harassment of any type without regard to race, color, religion, age, sex, national origin, disability status, genetics, protected veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or any other characteristic protected by federal, state or local laws” (source). The idea is to avoid creating biases or indulging prejudices about candidates that have nothing to do with their relevant qualifications or experience for the job. The following are the most unacceptable questions you must avoid asking during hiring interviews:

Are you married or single? This seems innocent enough but can end up being a kind of back-door way of gauging whether or not a candidate’s family commitment will get in the way of their job, which is not a fair question to ask. 

Do you have children (or are you pregnant or planning on having children)?  Everyone knows that there is bias towards women in the workplace who are or might become mothers, but it’s none of your company’s business and should not come up in hiring interviews. It’s an inherently discriminating question to ask, whether for male or female candidates.

How old are you? Age discrimination is explicitly included in most equal employment opportunities. The only situation where it is legal to ask about a candidate’s age is if you need to make sure they meet a minimum age requirement to perform a job, such as selling alcohol.

Are you religious? Religion is another factor mentioned in most EEO policies. This means you also have to not ask questions such as “Do you attend church?” or “Do you pray five times a day?” or what religious holidays they celebrate. These are all strictly illegal questions to ask during hiring interviews.

Are you a citizen of the US (or another country)? National origin is another item in most EEO policies. The only aspect of this you can legally ask is whether or not they are permitted to work in this country. You can verify candidates are legally allowed to work in your company’s country.

Do you have health problems or issues? Most EEO policies include “disability status,” which means you cannot ask about a candidate’s health issues. You are allowed to ask if candidates are fit for specific physical demands that are part of the job, such as lifting packages up to a particular weight. 

Do you have a criminal record? There is a growing movement to “ban the box” that asks job applicants whether they have ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. The idea is that candidates deserve to be considered on their relevant qualifications and experience, not ruled out from the start because of a criminal record. If your company does background checks as a final step before hiring, you’ll find out about it at that point.

Do you drink alcohol? Because alcoholism is now considered a disability, it is illegal to ask about alcohol use during hiring interviews. 

Is English your first language? This is often a back-door way of trying to find out about a candidate’s national origin, which means it is illegal to ask about it. 

Do you have a significant amount of debt? This is not relevant to the candidate’s ability for the job they have applied for and should not be asked during hiring interviews. 

There are many other potential questions I could have listed here that relate explicitly or indirectly to items covered by equal employment opportunity laws and policies, such as anything that could be interpreted as trying to find out about a candidate’s sexual orientation or gender identity and so on. But the examples provided should give you a clear idea of what should be considered strictly off-limits in hiring interviews the next time you’re looking to add talent to your learning and training team. Use common sense!