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Career Development Lee-Ann Knorr

What Can They (NOT) Ask During an Interview?

The interview is going well, but then you get a question that you’re not sure how to handle. What questions are “off limits” during an interview?

Interviews are hard. You feel vulnerable since you are being judged by a stranger to see if you’re the fit for the job they are offering. Plus, it’s a job you want! You’ve prepared everything you want to say, knowing your strengths and how you handle conflict. You have prepared examples of your work ethic, professionalism, and of course, your qualifications for the job at hand.  

The interview is going well, but then you get a question that you’re not sure how to handle. The interviewer has asked you how many kids you have. Though you may (or may not) have kids, what could it possibly have to do with your ability to do the job? Why do they want to know?

Illegal Interview Questions

This is an illegal question. It is unlawful to deny someone employment if they have children or if they are planning on having children in the future.

 What else is “off limits” during an interview?

For our purposes, most personal data is taboo to ask about. An employer cannot ask about your religious beliefs, sexual orientation, marital status, or race. In short, any question that asks a candidate to reveal information about such topics without the question having a job-related basis may violate the various state and federal discrimination laws.

Employers have to ask some challenging questions to determine if you are the best candidate for the role. However, asking highly personal questions can be inappropriate and unjustly discriminate against you. However, if the employer states questions so that they directly relate to specific occupational qualifications, then the questions may be legitimate.

For example, employers cannot ask if you own a car; but they can ask if you have a reliable way to work. Also, an employer cannot ask if you have a disability. However, they can ask if you need reasonable accommodations to perform a job. For instance, if you are left-handed, you may need a certain type of desk or keyboard, but if you have a disability that has no bearing on your ability to do a job, they cannot ask you directly about your disability.

Note that if you DO have a disability affecting how you do your job and aren’t sure how to handle it, please do not hesitate to reach out to your Career Coach to discuss interview/hiring strategies! Employers are permitted to “pre-offer” questions about reasonable accommodations if there is an obvious disability.

What about age?  

Generally, asking a person their age is an illegal question. Over half of job seekers aged 40+, 51%, have said that their age was a hurdle in finding a new position. Ageism can be a barrier for older employees looking for employment. If you have been in the workforce, there is absolutely no reason for an employer to ask your age.

However, if you are new to the workforce and do not have previous work experience, an employer may ask you if you are “over 18” or other age limits. This is an okay question for employers since there are child labor laws preventing persons under 21 from performing certain jobs and working certain hours.  In these circumstances, confirming your age is only to ascertain THEY are not breaking any laws.   

What happens if I’m asked an illegal question?

If you are asked an illegal question, you may feel like you are in somewhat of an ethical dilemma. While it is an awkward position to be in, here are some responses/options to consider:

  1. Rephrase the question: “I’m sure by that question, what you’re trying to determine is if I am committed to this role.” Then go on to talk about your commitment to the role. Avoid being confrontational, emotional or combative with this question to show that your professionalism is still top-notch.
  2. Ask the interviewer to rephrase the question, so you can have a better understanding of why that question would be important, considering you’ve likely never been asked that question before.  
  3. Avoid answering with, “I am not sure how my personal life affects my ability to provide excellent work for you, as I keep my personal matters separate. I’m professional.”

If they quickly back off, openly apologize or acknowledge that they stepped over the line, that is helpful. We’re all capable of making mistakes so your interviewer could have possibly made a mistake. However, if the hiring manager does not rescind the question, consider if you want to work for a company that does not know better or respects boundaries. This is a clear red flag that there could be other forms of discrimination.  

Word of caution

Knowing HOW to maintain control of that information and how to share it with an employer is also helpful. So, if you have a “gray” situation, please don’t hesitate to reach out to your Career Development Team to help you navigate any particulars!

Learn More About Our Career Programs


* Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics 2023 / Occupational Outlook Handbook 2022. BLS estimates do not represent entry-level wages and/or salaries. Multiple factors, including prior experience, age, geography market in which you want to work and degree field, will affect career outcomes and earnings. Herzing neither represents that its graduates will earn the average salaries calculated by BLS for a particular job nor guarantees that graduation from its program will result in a job, promotion, salary increase or other career growth.

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