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Illegal Interview Questions and How to (Not) Answer Them

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It happens all the time to job seekers: You’re in a job interview, and the questions start to feel uncomfortably personal. You think, “Wait. Is this question even legal?” It might not be. Here are some tips on how to decide and how you might want to handle the situation.

Small businesses with fewer than 15 employees are generally exempt from following Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requirements, the major equal rights areas that determine whether an interview question is illegal or not.

Another area of growing equal rights concern are questions related to salary history (particularly due to its close correlation to gender inequality). In most jurisdictions, including across Texas, however, asking about salary history is still legal.

And a final major area of concern includes questions about criminal background history. Again, the area isn’t legally cut-and-dry. Whether the question is legal depends on where you live and work, what type of business is asking, and what the job entails.

Some subtle job interview questions that should raise red flags include:

  • I love your accent. Where did you grow up?
  • Tell me about your family.
  • Will your family mind that you’d be traveling so much?
  • What do you like to do on the weekends?
  • Ah, Texas Tech. Great school. When did you graduate?
  • What gender do you associate with, so we can address you appropriately?
  • Did you hurt your back? What happened?

For many of these types of questions—whether they’re legal or not—you can often answer with something like, “I’m not sure why that’s relevant. I can tell you that I’m confident in my ability to do the job.” The Balance Careers offers additional ways to handle these questions here.

Many employers will need to ask about reasonable accommodations and your ability to perform the job to its fullest. Don’t confuse those questions with illegal ones. Legal questions should be general enough that they can be asked of every applicant. Questions like “Do you feel you can satisfy the job’s essential functions?” and “Can you meet the work schedule and travel requirements for this job?” are fair game.

If you have a disability, feel you may be discriminated against due to your race or your appearance, or have concerns about your salary or criminal background, look into those specific areas and prepare yourself before walking into an interview. Understand your rights and prepare your answers thoughtfully.

Most discrimination against job applicants isn’t deliberate. Keep your cool, deflect the questions in a respectful manner, and investigate further once you walk out of the interview. If you work with a recruiter or staffing specialist at The HT Group, be sure to let us know. We’re here to help.


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