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What You Can't Ask a Job Applicant


When you’re hiring, weeding through applicants for the right person is often a challenging task. You want someone that fits in and can do the job, but you need to be aware of questions that are illegal or unethical and can land you in hot water during the interview process.

Federal laws make it illegal for an employer to discriminate against a job applicant because of the person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. Be sure to avoid personal questions at the beginning of an interview when you’re making small talk and setting the candidate at ease. Understanding where to draw the line is important in order to void accusations of unfair hiring practices or lawsuits. Here are a few examples of questions to avoid.

Marital Status and Parenthood

  • “Are you married?”
  • “Do you have children?”
  • “Are you pregnant?
  • “Do you plan on having a family?”
  • “What does your spouse do?”

Any questions relating to marital status or parenthood should be avoided during the hiring process.


The law prohibits treating an applicant less favorably because of their age (40 and over). While you can’t ask age-related questions such as, “What year did you graduate high school?,” employers may ask applicants if they meet the minimum age requirement if there is one or how many years of relevant work experience they have.

Citizenship or Origin

Questions such as, “Where were you born?” or “What is your background?” may seem like icebreakers, but they are prohibited during the hiring process. You can ask an applicant if they are authorized to work in the United States or if they can show proof if they are selected for hire. You may also ask if they can speak and write in English (or any other language that relates to the job), but not if it’s their first language.

Disabilities and Medical Concerns

Employers are not allowed to ask questions about disabilities until after a conditional job offer is made. Do not ask questions regarding an applicant’s:

  • physical or mental impairment or how they became disabled
  • medication use
  • prior workers’ compensation history

If the job position requires certain physical abilities, you can’t ask if the applicant is in good health, has any health issues, or questions pertaining to past illnesses. But there are some questions regarding physical abilities that may be asked, as long as the physical ability is deemed a bona fide requirement of the job. You also can’t ask for information pertaining to their height, weight, or any details regarding physical or mental limitations. However, you may ask an applicant if they can perform the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation.

Avoid Discrimination Practices

You want to be fair during the hiring process and avoid asking applicants for personal information that is protected by law. If the candidate starts talking about their children, spouse, club or religious affiliations, or other sensitive or taboo topics, it’s best to politely bring the conversation back to the subject of work. Keep the questions relevant to the job and the candidate’s ability to perform a specific task associated with the job. Otherwise, if you ask the wrong questions or get too personal, you may face some unfavorable consequences.

Through each aspect of the recruiting, hiring, and employment stages, avoid questions and practices that discriminate or may appear to discriminate against any class of people. You also need to be sure your interview questions are the same for all candidates and that they strictly relate to the knowledge, skills, and abilities to successfully perform the job.

Small business owners can get helpful resources pertaining to equal opportunity employment through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You can also seek the services of an employment attorney to discuss specific concerns.

About Business Consumer Alliance Business Consumer Alliance (BCA) is a non-profit company that started in 1928. The broad purpose of BCA is to promote business self-regulation. BCA's mission is achieved by assisting consumers in resolving complaints with businesses and using that complaint information, along with other relevant information such as customer reviews, to forecast business reliability. With community support, BCA can identify trustworthy and ethical businesses and warn the public to avoid unscrupulous businesses whose purpose is to defraud the marketplace. BCA also helps businesses promote themselves by providing services and tools to protect their business and reach out to their customers. BCA obtains its funding from member businesses who support the mission and purpose of the organization and who agree to abide by high standards of ethical business practices.