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Job Interview Tips: 10 Illegal Questions to Avoid

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

When interviewing prospective employees or interns, it's important to keep your questions legal.

Nonchalant questions about someone's birthday or children might seem like a nice way to break the ice. But from a legal standpoint, such questions might flirt with unlawful employment practices.

Here are 10 questions you'll generally want to avoid when interviewing:

  1. Are you married? Questions that pertain to a person's marital status or sexual orientation, including maiden names or being addressed as "Mr., Miss, Ms., or Mrs." are legally off-limits.
  2. Do you have children? Avoid asking questions about children (which can be seen as family status discrimination), pregnancy, future childbearing plans, unwed motherhood, or child care.
  3. Do you have a car? Even if you really mean to ask about attendance and reliability, steer clear of this question. Unless a car is necessary to do the job, asking about an intern's current or past assets (or finances generally) can be legally dubious.
  4. When did you graduate? Try not to ask questions that could reveal a person's age and trigger age-discrimination allegations. That includes the candidate's birth year, graduation year from high school or college, and inquiries into how long he or she's been working.
  5. Where is your accent from? It's alright to ask if someone is legally authorized to work in the country, but not about his or her national origin. Additional questions to avoid include "What country are you from?," "Where are your parents from?," and "Is English your first language?" Instead, ask about candidates' fluency in other languages to determine language proficiency.
  6. We love happy hour here. Do you drink? Asking about drinking habits may violate the Americans With Disabilities Act if your prospective intern is a recovering or functioning alcoholic.
  7. When did you last do illegal drugs? Employers can ask about current illegal drug use (for example, in the last six months), but not about a past drug addiction. Past use is protected by the ADA; current use is not.
  8. Have you ever been arrested? Employers can ask if someone's been convicted of a crime, but not about his or her arrest record. Several states also prohibit employers from disqualifying candidates because of their criminal record unless it substantially relates to the job.
  9. Do you need certain religious holidays off? Never ask anything that could reveal an intern's religion. It's OK to ask about an intern's availability on days or dates, but not in the context of religious practice.
  10. Were you discharged honorably from the military? Instead, ask about the education, training, and work experience he or she cultivated while in the military.

This list isn't exhaustive, but it's a good start. Your employment law attorney would be happy to give extra guidance on the do's and don'ts of asking interview questions.

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