35 Interview Questions You Should Never Ask Candidates (And a Few You Actually Should)

Gusto Editors

Interviewing candidates can feel like an awkward first date. Sure, you’re asking all the right questions about what you’re looking for, but you’re also just having a casual chat with someone cool—right?

In the world of interviews, that’s not totally the case.

During the conversation, you have to strike a balance between wanting to make your candidate feel at ease without slipping into dicey question territory. Or in other words asking them illegal interview questions.

And what may feel like innocuous chatter could actually balloon into giant HR no-nos, giving the person grounds to say they were discriminated against. In fact, CareerBuilder found that 20 percent of hiring managers admit to having asked an illegal interview question at some point in their life (which they only realized after the words left their lips).

But with a little understanding of what’s really off limits, you won’t have to freak out.

Below are some questions to steer clear of — along with a few reworded alternatives you can happily pack into your interview backpack.


Thanks to the magic of math, this question is surprisingly easy to bring up without directly asking it outright.

While you do have a right to know if the person you’re interviewing is 18 or older, that’s basically the end of it. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 bars employers from discriminating against people 40 or older, so trying to chip away at the answer can land you in hot water.

Not to mention, a lot of states also have measures in place to prevent age discrimination for those who are younger than 40. It really doesn’t matter what direction the age questions go—just don’t do it.

Questions you shouldn’t ask

  • When did you graduate from school?
  • What class were you in?
  • Are you comfortable being around younger employees?
  • Are you comfortable being around older employees?
  • Can you rent a car?
  • Do you think your age has ever held you back?
  • When are you thinking of retiring?

Questions you can ask

  • Are you 18 or older?
  • What are your career goals?
  • What’s your alma mater?

Family and living situation

Usually, asking about someone’s personal life is a surefire way to speed up the getting-to-know-you process.

Unfortunately, a lot of these questions can easily slip into pregnancy and gender discrimination territory, which are protected classes under laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

For example, if you know a candidate has kids, they can argue that it prevented them from getting the role because they may have been seen as less available than someone who was child-free.

Questions you shouldn’t ask

  • Are you single/engaged/married?
  • Do you have kids?
  • Are you planning on having kids?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • Are you planning on getting pregnant?
  • What daycare is your kid in?
  • What school does your kid go to?
  • Do you live with anyone?
  • What’s your partner’s name?
  • What’s your maiden name?

Questions you can ask

  • Can you get to the office by 9:30 each morning?
  • Are you able to relocate for this role?

Nationality and ethnicity

Any question that tries to deduce someone’s national origin or ethnic background is completely off limits.

Even asking about things that seem harmless, like what languages a person speaks, can be seen as a way to triangulate where they’re from.

Questions you shouldn’t ask

  • How long have you lived here?
  • Where is your family from?
  • What color is your hair?
  • What color are your eyes?
  • What country are you from?
  • Where are you originally from?
  • What’s your ethnicity?
  • Where were you born?
  • What language(s) do you speak?*

*This question should generally be avoided, but if the job requires proficiency in a certain language, you can ask whether the candidate is proficient in that language, as described below.

Questions you can ask

  • Are you authorized to work in this country?
  • Can you speak [insert language]? (Only if it’s relevant to the job)

Religious background

Some employers unknowingly veer into the religion realm because they want to know how available the person will be during the holidays. Candidates don’t have to reveal any of that information to you, along with any religious or non-religious organizations they’re a part of.

However, you can snap up the information you need without having to bring up religion.

Questions you shouldn’t ask

  • What’s your religious background?
  • Are you religious?
  • How did you grow up?
  • How were you raised?
  • Do you go to mosque/church/synagogue, etc.?
  • Do you observe [insert holiday]?
  • Are you a part of [non-professional organization]?

Questions you can ask

  • What days can you work?
  • Are you able to work on holidays or weekends? (Only if working holidays or weekends is relevant to the job.)
  • Are you a part of [professional organization]?

The top taboo questions are now right in front of you. With this list of illegal interview questions, you’ll be better prepared to step into any interview room and make those butterflies disappear.

All you have to do is dial into what you really want to know about your knockout candidate—without knocking into any weird HR stickiness along the way.

Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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