Rethink Recruiting

How to Get the Answers to Questions That You Can’t Ask in an Interview

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is charged with enforcing federal laws against hiring discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, nationality, age, disability, or genetic information.


Stay educated to avoid violating EEOC, state, and local hiring discrimination laws.

Most employers with 15 or more employees are subject to these rules. The laws the EEOC enforces cover questions you are not allowed to ask job candidates. Prohibiting these questions helps ensure people are hired based on skill and not preconceived biases.

Naturally, you, the hiring manager or HR professional, want to learn as much as you can about an interviewee. How can you learn the information you need without asking questions that could make you the target of a lawsuit? A good starting place is reading the EEOC website, understanding the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, and reviewing the Americans with Disabilities Act. Your aims may be completely innocent, but inadvertently exposing your company to litigation due to asking certain questions during job interviews is something to avoid. Here are some tips.

Know State and Local Laws Concerning Employment Discrimination

The EEOC is in charge of enforcing federal laws related to employment discrimination, but your state or city may have additional laws. A number of cities and counties in the United States, for example, have laws prohibiting discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) job candidates. Most of these cities and counties (but not all of them) are located in states with statewide non-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation and / or gender identity. It’s important to familiarize yourself with relevant laws on every level from local to federal.

Nationality and Religion

Though you’re not allowed to ask someone if they’re a US citizen, or what their birthplace is, you can ask a person if he or she is authorized to work in the US. Likewise, you can’t ask what a person’s native language is, though you can ask which languages a job candidate uses fluently. When it comes to religion, you can ask which days an interviewee is available to work, but you’re not allowed to ask, “What religion do you practice?” Notice that the questions you are allowed to ask are often open-ended compared to prohibited questions.

Gender and Marital Status


Questions about marital status are off the table.

You can’t ask someone’s gender, and there’s no alternative question you’re allowed to use. Similarly, you’re not allowed to ask someone’s marital status, though you are allowed to ask an interviewee if they have earned a degree or worked under another name. As for family status, asking if an interviewee has children, is pregnant, or plans to have children is off-limits. What you are allowed to ask is whether the person can work occasional overtime or travel for work.

Age and Health

While you can inquire if a job candidate is of the minimum age required for performing the job, you can’t ask how old they are, though there may be a blank on their job application where they fill in their date of birth, which is fine as long as a non-discrimination disclaimer is included. As for the job candidate’s health, questions you are allowed to ask must relate to job responsibilities (“Can you reach items on a 5-foot tall shelf?”) and not about physical characteristics.

What if the Interviewee Voluntarily Reveals Information You Can’t Ask?

This happens: in the course of casual conversation, an interviewee may mention their three children or that they had a blowout 50th birthday party last year. Understand that you’re not allowed to pursue the topic any further. In fact, it’s best if you ignore the statements to the best of your ability.

It’s not easy being an HR director or hiring manager. Not only are you often asked to locate and hire the perfect person within a short period of time, you’re expected to follow all hiring laws to the letter, lest you expose your organization to litigation. Periodically reviewing applicable laws is wise, as is looking up anything you’re not sure of (or asking company counsel).

In industries like biotech and pharmaceuticals, where competition for talent can be intense, working with a specialty recruiter can be a wise choice. Not only are these professionals thoroughly versed in the letter of the law as far as hiring, the successful ones have networks and connections that even long term employers in the industry don’t have. If you have a challenging hiring push ahead of you, we invite you to contact us. Our services may be exactly what you need.

About Rethink Recruiting

The recruiting landscape is changing as a result of technology, culture, and the increasing demands for unique skills and experience in emerging fields. Rethink Recruiting provides insights about trends and strategies to maximize your talent potential.

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