Did You Know These Seemingly Innocent Interview Questions Are Illegal?

Make sure you know about these illegal interview questions before you walk into your next one.

Make sure you know about these illegal interview questions before you walk into your next one.

So, your interview is off to a great start. Your resume is perfect, and the hiring manager is clearly impressed. It’s going so well that it almost feels like a meetup with an old friend rather than a formal interview. This is usually a good sign but be careful—you might be offering up unnecessary information that could hurt your chances of landing the job

It’s widely known that federal laws prohibit direct questions about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and all other protected classes, but sometimes the question isn’t so direct. So, what are the seemingly innocent questions to be cautious of during an interview? We break it down for you below to ensure you know the best way to successfully navigate your job interview.

Are you planning to start a family soon?

Starting a family is an exciting and monumental moment in a person’s life, but unfortunately, employers could potentially view it as an inconvenience or question your commitment to the job ahead of you. A new hire looking to start a family could mean possible lateness, frequent sick days, doctor’s appointments during work hours, and long absences at the company’s expense.

How to Answer: I’m not at that point in my life yet. I am interested in what a career path looks like at this company. Can you give me more detail?  

Can you work on the weekends?  

Most corporate employees are off the clock on the weekends even when overtime is required. If you’re a salaried employer, the company might expect you to be available on the weekends or on short notice if there is an emergency.  But unless Saturday and Sunday are required workdays, the interviewer shouldn’t ask about weekend availability.  This question could be seen as attempt to find out the applicant’s religion. Although it may not be, candidates may feel forced to share religious obligations when asked this question.

How to Answer: Of course, if you nailed an interview for your dream job and are eager to put in the extra weekend hours, then, by all means, say “yes.”  You can also assure them that you will attend to any unexpected emergencies at your earliest convenience without divulging any other information. 

Do you own a car?

Much like asking about weekend availability, an employer shouldn’t directly ask you if you have a car unless the job requires you to use your own vehicle. Most job seekers have seen “must be able to commute to X location” on a job post. The employer most likely wants to make sure that you’ll be able to make it into work on time, especially in places where public transportation is limited.   

The Equal Employment Opportunity Office has a different take on this question. They consider it protected financial information, so not hiring someone based on their answer is discriminatory. This question also puts physically impaired individuals who are unable to drive at a disadvantage. Asking why someone doesn’t have a car could leave a disabled candidate feeling forced to disclose their impairment.   

How to answer: Politely inform your interviewer that you weren’t aware the job required you to use your own vehicle. This will prompt them to share their true intentions for asking the question which will most likely be related to attendance. Assure them that you will be able to get to work ahead of your scheduled time.

Cultural Organizations

Being a member of a cultural organization has many benefits. Members are usually required to do volunteer work and/or maintain a high-grade point average and are able to obtain prestigious internships through alumni connections. Sounds like a great bullet point on your resume, but it can also be used by interviewers to discern your race.

 A simple statement like “Which one is that? I think I’ve heard of it before” during a phone interview could be seen as prying for that information.

How to answer: You can list the member requirements and benefits without sharing the cultural aspects of the organization.  This information can be found online with a quick Google search, so keeping it on your resume is a great way to avoid any company with such bias. 

Can you list your emergency contacts?

Has your interview ever gone so well that the interviewer replaces “If you are hired” with “When you start” while listing off the day-to-day duties of the position? They may have suggested that you complete some paperwork to get it out of the way even before an official offer has been made. 

One part of the new employee packet that you can ditch without an official offer is the “Emergency Contacts” page.  This information can reveal your sexual orientation and national origin if you decide to list your significant other or parents’ names. Additionally, questions about the relationship between you and the people you live with are prohibited for the same reason. 

How to answer: Inform the interviewer that you need a bit more time with one or more pages of the packet.  Ask them if you have the option to fill it out at home and bring it back on your first official day. 

Do you drink?

More companies are starting to offer unique perks in order to attract and retain amazing talent.  Happy hours and on-the-clock fiestas have become a common occurrence. Casually asking if you’re a social drinker while explaining the company culture could be their way of trying to see if you’ll fit in. 

However, this question might not fly with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Asking about alcohol consumption could force a candidate with a prior substance abuse issue to disclose their medical condition/diagnosis.  

How to answer: Keep it short and sweet. Feel free to answer with a simple “yes” or “no.”

What was your previous compensation? 

Try to put yourself in a business owners’ shoes for a moment. You’ve found the perfect employee on paper and they’re even better in person. The only thing that could make their dream candidate even more ideal is if their salary expectations are within budget.

Don’t talk yourself out of the salary you feel you deserve by mentioning your past pay.  Employers know that one of the keys to retaining amazing candidates, like yourself, is offering a competitive salary and benefits package, so know your worth going in and be prepared to confidently navigate this conversation.

How to answer: Try to steer the conversation away from past compensation by politely but firmly stating why you deserve your desired salary. Mention that this number is based on your skills, experience, current salary trends, and the work required for the position. 

Be Prepared

Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine whether or not you feel comfortable answering possibly coded questions.  Before proceeding, consider how your answer will affect your chances of receiving an offer of employment. If you’re confident that you want the job, then be sure to craft a response that steers the conversation in a positive direction. 

Practicing your answers to these and other standard interview questions will make sure nothing throws you off your game.  When interviewing, keep in mind that employers are most likely not trying to trick you, but you should always do your research and be prepared. It’s a good idea to understand the law and know your protections. 


Career Group Companies (CareerGroupCompanies.com) is a boutique recruiting firm that specializes in temporary and full-time administrative placements. We work with leading businesses, constantly raising the bar to provide a premium approach to search that others can’t reach. We take the time to get to know our clients and candidates, so we’re in a better position to make well-informed matches that we know are going to work.