Hiring with Less Hassle Blog


Careful what you ask…

September 20th, 2010 | anchorwave

Employers naturally want to find out as much as they can about applicants during job interviews to ensure good hiring decisions. But this quest for information can easily run afoul of the many federal and state laws designed to protect job-seekers against discrimination. And the last thing an employer wants is a discrimination lawsuit or an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces the laws that make it illegal to discriminate against an applicant because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age, disability or genetic information.

No federal or state agency has compiled a comprehensive list of questions employers are barred from asking. But generally, the key to understanding unlawful inquiries is remembering to ask only questions that will provide information about the person’s ability to do the job.

Here’s a list of potential problem areas where it can be easy to violate a law, along with legal alternatives.


Federal law protects workers over the age of 40 from discrimination. However, it is legal to make an age inquiry to ensure a person is old enough to accept a position.
Illegal questions:

  • How old are you?
  • When is your birthday?
  • In what year did you graduate from college/high school?


  • Are you over the age of 18?
  • If you are hired, can you provide proof that you’re over 18?


In the past, employers often asked applicants who were female (long-viewed as the primary care providers for children) if they had children in an effort to determine whether they were likely to be late or absent often. This is illegal. Asking questions about marriage can violate laws designed to prevent discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation.

Illegal questions:

  • Are you married or do you have a permanent partner?
  • With whom do you live?
  • How many children do you have?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • What are you child care arrangements?


  • Travel is an important part of the job. Do you have any restrictions on your ability to travel?
  • Do you have responsibilities or commitments that will prevent you from meeting specified work schedules?


Inquiries about a person’s citizenship or country of birth are unlawful and imply discrimination on the basis of national origin. A lawfully immigrated alien may not be discriminated against on the basis of citizenship.

Illegal questions:

  • Where were you/your parents born?
  • What is your native language?
  • What is your country of citizenship?
  • Are you a US citizen?


  • Are you authorized to work in the United States?

We’ll explore other interview subjects where it’s easy to violate discrimination laws in future posts. But remember, the key to staying out of trouble is sticking to questions that directly relate to a person’s ability to do the job.