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Inappropriate and Illegal Interview Questions to Avoid

Elle Wong

November 02, 2023

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against Target Corporation for using inappropriate interview questions. The EEOC claimed that Target asked questions during job interviews that were unrelated to the position and disproportionately screened out qualified applicants based on race and gender. Target settled the lawsuit with $2.8 million, agreeing to revise its hiring practices.

In the hiring process, it's crucial to ensure that candidates are treated fairly and without bias. However, there are certain questions that are inappropriate or even illegal to ask during an interview. This guide will shed light on 100 such questions and explain why they should be avoided.

Questions about Age

  • "How old are you?"
  • "When did you graduate from high school?"

Why it's inappropriate: Asking about a candidate's age can lead to age discrimination. The focus should be on the candidate's skills and experience, not their age.

Stat: According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), age discrimination cases accounted for approximately 21% of all discrimination cases in 2019.

In 2004, a 54-year-old computer scientist claimed that Google denied him employment based on his age. His interviewers were significantly younger and allegedly asked questions that hinted at age discrimination. The case was settled out of court, and while Google did not admit to any wrongdoing, the case brought attention to the potential for age bias in the tech industry's hiring processes.

In 2019, Google settled an age discrimination lawsuit brought by over 200 job applicants over the age of 40 who claimed they were not hired because of their age. The tech giant agreed to pay $11 million to the plaintiffs and to train employees and management about age bias.

Questions about Marital & Family Status

  • "Are you married?"
  • "Do you have children?"

Why it's inappropriate:Such questions can lead to discrimination based on marital or family status. They also have no bearing on a candidate's ability to perform the job.

Stat: In a survey, 35% of women reported being asked about their marital or family status during job interviews.

Anecdote:A woman once shared her experience of being asked if she planned to have more children during a job interview. She felt that the question was not only inappropriate but also affected the interviewer's decision.

Questions about Religion

  • "Do you go to church on Sundays?"
  • "What religious holidays do you observe?"

Why it's inappropriate: Questions about religion can lead to religious discrimination. Employers should respect candidates' religious beliefs and practices.

Stat: Religious discrimination cases made up 4% of all EEOC cases in 2019.

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Abercrombie & Fitch in a case involving a Muslim woman who wore a headscarf. She was denied employment because her hijab conflicted with the company’s dress code, which the company did not enforce uniformly. This case underlined the importance of accommodating religious practices in the workplace.

Questions about National Origin

  • "Where were you born?"
  • "What's your native language?"

Why it's inappropriate: Such questions can lead to discrimination based on national origin.

Stat: National origin discrimination cases represented 10% of all EEOC cases in 2019.

Questions about Gender and Sexual Orientation

  • "Do you have a boyfriend?"
  • "Are you pregnant or planning to become pregnant?"

Why it's inappropriate: These questions can lead to discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.

Stat: Gender discrimination cases accounted for 28% of all EEOC cases in 2019.

In a case from the early 2000s, a former employee sued IBM for $5 million, claiming he was fired due to his sexual orientation after his manager made a series of homophobic remarks. The case was one of the first major lawsuits involving sexual orientation discrimination in the tech industry.

In a 2007 lawsuit, the EEOC alleged that financial news and media company Bloomberg LP discriminated against employees who were pregnant or returning from maternity leave. The complaint included allegations that during interviews, Bloomberg managers would ask women about their plans to become pregnant or their child care arrangements. Bloomberg settled the lawsuit by creating a fund for the affected employees and enhancing its equal opportunity training.

Questions about Disabilities

  • "Do you have any disabilities?"
  • "How did you lose your leg?"

Why it's inappropriate:Questions that directly or indirectly inquire about a person's disability can lead to discrimination. It's essential to focus on the candidate's ability to perform job tasks, not their physical or mental conditions.

Stat: According to the EEOC, disability discrimination cases made up 33% of all discrimination cases in 2019.

Questions about Race or Color

  • "What race are you?"
  • "You have an interesting skin tone; where are your ancestors from?"

Why it's inappropriate:Racial questions can lead to direct or indirect discrimination and have no relevance to a candidate's job performance.

Stat: Racial discrimination cases represented 26% of all EEOC cases in 2019.

In the 1990s, Texaco settled a racial discrimination lawsuit for $176 million. Tapes were leaked that captured executives making racial slurs and mocking African American employees. It was one of the largest settlements of a racial discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history and led to significant changes in how the company handled diversity and inclusion.

Questions about Financial Status

  • "Do you own or rent your home?"
  • "Have you ever declared bankruptcy?"

Why it's inappropriate: Financial status has no bearing on a candidate's ability to perform a job. Such questions can lead to socioeconomic discrimination.

Stat: While not tracked by the EEOC, various surveys suggest that up to 15% of candidates have faced questions related to their financial status during interviews.

Questions about Health and Physical Appearance

  • "Have you ever had a major illness?"
  • "You look fit; do you work out often?"

Why it's inappropriate: Questions about health or physical appearance can lead to discrimination and are not relevant to job performance.

Stat: Health-related questions can potentially violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination based on health conditions.

Questions about Membership in Organizations

  • "Are you a member of the local golf club?"
  • "Do you participate in LGBTQ+ organizations?"

Why it's inappropriate:Such questions can lead to discrimination based on personal interests, affiliations, or perceived affiliations.

Stat: Membership-based discrimination is not widely tracked, but anecdotal evidence suggests it can subtly influence hiring decisions.

Questions about Arrest Record

  • "Have you ever been arrested?"
  • "Do you have a police record?"

Why it's inappropriate: Asking about arrest records can be discriminatory. It's more appropriate to inquire about convictions relevant to the job role.

Stat: The EEOC advises against using arrest records as a deciding factor in employment, as it can disproportionately affect certain racial groups.

Questions about Military Discharge

  • "Were you honorably discharged from the military?"
  • "Why did you leave the military?"

Why it's inappropriate: Questions about the nature of someone's military discharge can be considered discriminatory.

Stat: Discrimination based on veteran status or military discharge can be a violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).

Questions about Citizenship

  • "Are you a U.S. citizen?"
  • "Where were you born?"

Why it's inappropriate:While employers can ask if a candidate is authorized to work in a specific country, directly inquiring about citizenship can lead to national origin discrimination.

Stat: The EEOC reported that national origin discrimination charges made up about 10% of all discrimination cases in 2019.

Questions about Lifestyle Choices

  • "Do you drink alcohol?"
  • "How often do you go out partying?"

Why it's inappropriate: Questions about personal habits or lifestyle choices that are not directly relevant to the job can be invasive and lead to unfair judgments.

Stat: While lifestyle discrimination is not explicitly tracked, it's essential to remember that personal habits unrelated to job performance should remain private.

Questions about Genetic Information

  • "Do you have a history of illness in your family?"
  • "Have any of your relatives suffered from a genetic condition?"

Why it's inappropriate: Such questions can lead to genetic information discrimination, which is prohibited under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).

Stat: The EEOC received 206 charges of genetic information discrimination in 2019.

Questions about Residency

  • "Do you live nearby?"
  • "Is this your permanent address?"

Why it's inappropriate: While commute time might be a practical consideration, dwelling too much on a candidate's living situation can border on invasive. It's best to ask if they can reliably commute or be punctual instead.

Stat: Discrimination based on residency isn't widely tracked, but it's essential to respect the privacy of candidates regarding their living situations.

The hiring process should be a reflection of a company's values and commitment to fairness and equality. Avoiding inappropriate or illegal questions is not just about compliance but about building a reputation as an inclusive and respectful employer. Always prioritize job-relevant questions and create a comfortable environment for candidates to showcase their skills and experiences.

Questions about Personal Beliefs

  • "What's your stance on climate change?"
  • "How do you feel about the current political climate?"

Why it's inappropriate:Personal beliefs, especially those unrelated to the job, should remain private. Delving into them can lead to bias and discrimination.

Stat: Bias based on personal beliefs can lead to a 20% decrease in job performance, as reported by various organizational psychology studies.

Questions about Appearance

  • "Do you always wear your hair like that?"
  • "Have you considered getting glasses instead of contact lenses?"

Why it's inappropriate: Comments or questions about a candidate's appearance can be seen as superficial judgments and are irrelevant to their job capabilities.

Questions about Weight

  • "Have you always been this size?"
  • "Do you think your weight might affect your performance?"

Why it's inappropriate: Weight has no bearing on most job functions, and such questions can be deeply personal and offensive.

Questions about Personal Interests Unrelated to the Job

  • "I noticed a band sticker on your laptop; do you like their music?"
  • "Do you play video games in your free time?"

Why it's inappropriate: While building rapport is essential, focusing too much on personal interests can lead interviewers to make biased judgments.

Questions about Social Media Behavior Outside of Professional Platforms

  • "I saw your post on Facebook about the recent protest; what made you attend?"
  • "Do you often share such strong opinions on Twitter?"

Why it's inappropriate: Personal social media platforms are just that – personal. Unless the behavior directly affects the job or company reputation, it's best to steer clear.

Questions about Tattoos and Piercings

  • "What does your tattoo represent?"
  • "Would you be willing to remove your piercings for the job?"

Why it's inappropriate: Tattoos and piercings are personal choices and should not affect hiring decisions unless they directly contradict company policy or job requirements.

Questions about Past Drug Use

  • "Have you ever used illegal drugs?"
  • "How do you feel about recreational marijuana?"

Why it's inappropriate: Past personal behaviors, especially if they have no bearing on the current job, should not be a topic of discussion.

Questions about Travel Habits

  • "How often do you travel for leisure?"
  • "Have you ever visited countries with safety warnings?"

Why it's inappropriate: Personal travel habits are not typically relevant to job performance and can lead to biased judgments.

  • "Are you a member of the local motorcycle club?"
  • "I noticed you wear a masonic ring; what's your rank?"

Why it's inappropriate: Inquiring about associations or clubs can lead to bias, especially if the interviewer has preconceived notions about such groups.

Questions about Transportation

  • "Do you own a car?"
  • "How do you usually commute?"

Why it's inappropriate: While understanding a candidate's reliability is essential, focusing on their mode of transportation can lead to socioeconomic bias.

Summing up

Navigating the minefield of interview questions is a crucial aspect of the recruitment process. As we've discussed, certain questions are not just inappropriate but can cross the line into illegality, potentially exposing a company to lawsuits, financial penalties, and reputational damage. The anecdotes we've explored underscore the importance of ensuring that interviewers are well-trained and that the questions they ask are relevant to the job's requirements and do not discriminate based on race, gender, age, religion, disability, or other protected statuses.

Creating a welcoming and inclusive work environment starts at the first interaction between a potential employee and a company. Interviews should focus on skills, experience, and the ability to perform job-related functions. It's essential for companies to establish clear guidelines for interviewers, conduct regular training, and review interview practices to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

For recruiters and HR professionals, it's not just about avoiding illegal questions; it's about fostering a culture of respect and fairness, which begins with the first handshake or the opening line of an interview. Keeping this in mind will not only help protect your company legally but also contribute to building a diverse and dynamic workforce that can drive your company forward. Remember, the best talent will always gravitate towards organizations that respect individuality and equality. Let's ensure our hiring processes reflect these values.

Elle Wong

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