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by Eileen Levitt | March 10, 2009


"What questions can I ask during an employment interview?" is a question that all hiring managers should carefully consider.

To ensure a diverse workforce, not to mention comply with state and federal discrimination laws, certain interview questions must be avoided.

Questions about an applicant's age, birthplace, appearance, marital status, child care arrangements, ethnicity, religion, financial status, etc., almost never have a specific bearing on the individual's ability to perform a job. They should, therefore, be strictly avoided. Indirect questions regarding these issues are just as improper as direct ones. For example, "How many years before you plan to retire?" is no different than asking the candidate's age. "What religious holidays do you observe?" is no better than directly asking a candidate to identify his or her religion. Both have the same legal repercussions. If these questions are asked of a candidate who isn't hired, inferences can be drawn that discrimination may have occurred.

Here are some examples of other inappropriate questions to avoid:

  • Do you hold citizenship in a country other than the United States?
  • Are you the primary wage earner for your family? Where does your spouse work? Do you have children?
  • Are you a member of any social clubs, fraternities, sororities, lodges teams or religious organizations?
  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • Where were you born? Where were your parents born?
  • What holidays do you observe?

In contrast, some questions that can be asked during an interview, if carefully worded, include:

  • Are you eligible to work in the United States?
  • Can you submit a birth certificate or other proof of age if you are hired?
  • Have you ever been convicted of a crime? (Interviewers should make sure to tell the applicant that a criminal conviction does not bar employment, but can be considered in relation to job requirements.)

To gain information without asking specific questions, many employers use the "tell me about yourself" approach. Unfortunately, the applicant may unknowingly raise "off-limits" subjects such as the religious group meetings he enjoys, or that she just found out she's pregnant and would like to know about the child care offered by the company. Under these circumstances, it is in the interviewer's best interest to interrupt and explain that the company does not base its hiring practices on that particular subject area.

On that note, when dealing with a pregnancy-related question, you can state that your company has a maternity leave policy and offers child care referral services; you cannot, however, ask about her due date.

Essentially, in the case that you mistakenly veer off into personal questions, you need to shift gears and get back to the position's requirements. Whatever information came up should stay with the interviewer and not be mentioned to others or entered anywhere on the application.

Again, although some questions may be asked innocently, they can unfortunately prevent you from having a diverse workforce and cause problems due to discrimination laws--intent is not the issue. As a recommendation, consider preparing a list of appropriate questions for the interview in order to protect yourself and your company. Be sure to share this list with all managers or staff who may do interviews and with the human resources department.

Eileen Levitt is president of HR Team, a Human Resources outsourcing company. She can be reached at 410-995-5257 or


Filed Under: Interviewing

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