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Keep these 12 interview questions off the table

Posted by Shivali Anand

January 19, 2022    |     5-minute read (825 words)

Recruiting and interviewing are challenging enough for businesses, but there are also certain interview questions you need to avoid asking candidates. Your goal is to strike the right balance by putting the candidate at ease while steering clear of banter that could lead to an inappropriate question or even potentially discriminatory hiring practices.  

The consequences of asking an out-of-line question could go beyond dampening your reputation and hurting your company’s stature — you could even be in jeopardy of a lawsuit. Every business owner should be acquainted with interview questions that should be avoided, so we’ve listed them below, along with references to federal and state-specific laws.

1. How old are you?

Any interview questions that imply age discrimination are prohibited under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Asking their age emphasizes implies you may use that information as a reason not to hire them. 

2. How many children do you have?

Even if a candidate has alluded to a family and children, do not ask how many children they have. Technically it is not illegal to ask this question, but queries on this topic could lead a candidate to believe you are opposed to hiring parents.

3. What is your spouse's occupation?

This is an intrusive personal inquiry that should have no bearing on the hiring process.

4. Are you single, married, divorced or planning to get married?

Eliminate this question altogether. Asking this question presents a possibility that you are biased against hiring someone if they don’t answer correctly.

5. What if you get pregnant?

While federal law doesn’t prohibit an employer from asking this question, it indicates a possible intent to discriminate based on pregnancy and should be avoided. It also suggests to candidates that the company may be unwelcoming to working mothers.

6. How did you pick up your accent?

This question should raise a red flag. It makes it apparent that you are interested in the person's nationality and may differentiate against a potential candidate because their accent is different or they may hail from a different country. If the question is for a role in which language fluency is important, ask instead how proficient or comfortable they are in this language.

7. What are your current earnings?

It is illegal to inquire about a job candidate's wage history in certain states and countries. Instead, inquire about their wage expectations for the new position.

8. Do you need to take time off for religious holidays?

Anything that has to do with religion or religious views should be avoided at all costs. Under federal law, questions about a candidate’s religious beliefs are generally perceived as non-work related and problematic.

9. Do you prefer working for a man or a woman as your boss?

This implies you are gender-biased and doubt the candidate’s abilities. 

10. Do you have any outstanding debts or have you had a run-in with the law?

You can do a background or reference check to see whether the candidate has broken any laws that are relevant to your company's policies. Do not venture into the realm of debt.

11. Do you indulge in social drinking?
This is a highly personal question that has nothing to do with most occupations.

12. How long has it been since you used illegal drugs?

Discrimination against those who take prescription medicines or are recovering addicts is prohibited. Replace this question with something like this: "Are you fine taking a drug test before and during your employment with us?"

Off-limits topics

In a nutshell, is best to steer clear altogether of topics such as race, gender, religion, marital status, number of children and child care arrangements as they can be deemed discriminatory. It is also unlawful to deny a female candidate a position because she is pregnant or planning to have a child.  

Federal, state laws pertaining to discrimination

Under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, federal laws prohibiting discrimination include:
  • Equal Pay Act of 1963
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act- 1967
  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
  • Civil Rights Act of 1991
  • Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008
Another federal law that protects individuals is the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Some states enforce further protections for workers, through laws like:

  • Salary history laws by state
  • Ban-the-box laws by state
  • Equal pay laws by state
In certain circumstances, federal laws apply only to specific employers. Employers with 15 or more employees are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act and Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. In addition, the ADEA covers employers with 20 or more employees. Make sure you're familiar with your state's anti-discrimination legislation.


Regardless of whether it’s intentional, discrimination can damage your company's reputation and lead to legal disputes, so be very careful when conducting your following interview. Your inquiries should focus on the candidate's educational background, professional skills, experience or anything else relevant to the position.

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