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A list of acceptable (and unacceptable) interview questions

When searching for the perfect candidate to fit a role in your business, it’s just as important for you to prepare for the interview as it is for the applicant to do the same. You should be thinking about the thoroughness of the questions, but you should also be thinking about the legality of what you’re asking. 

There are certain questions that you cannot ask in an interview because federal and state laws prohibit it. Protect yourself and your business by familiarizing yourself with what is acceptable to ask in an interview and what is not.

When searching for the perfect candidate to fit a role in your business, it’s just as important for you to prepare for the interview as it is for the applicant to do the same. You should be thinking about the thoroughness of the questions, but you should also be thinking about the legality of what you’re asking. 

There are certain questions that you cannot ask in an interview because federal and state laws prohibit it. Protect yourself and your business by familiarizing yourself with what is acceptable to ask in an interview and what is not.

1. Name

Acceptable: “Have you ever worked for this company under another name?”

Unacceptable: “Have you had any other names?” “What is your maiden name?” 

Why: Asking about a change in last name could lead to learning if an employee is married or unmarried. It is illegal in several states to discriminate against someone for their marital status.

2. Birthplace

Acceptable: There are no acceptable questions surrounding an applicant’s birthplace.

Unacceptable: “Where were you born?” “Where were your parents born?”

Why: Again, there are no acceptable questions about where a candidate was born because it could potentially lead to the belief that you discriminated against their nationality. 

3. Age

Acceptable: “Are you over 18 years of age?” If you’re interviewing for a driver, you can ask if the applicant is over 21 years of age.

Unacceptable: “How old are you?” Any questions you gear towards figuring out the age of the applicant are unacceptable. 

Why: The only time it is acceptable to ask how old an applicant is, is if the job requires an employee of a certain age, otherwise, the applicant can see it as ageism. Some applicants will put a date of birth on their resume.   

4. Religion

Acceptable: There are no acceptable questions surrounding an applicant’s religion.

Unacceptable: Any questions about a person’s religion or what days they may need off for religious holidays are unacceptable. 

Why: You are prohibited by law from discriminating against an employee on the basis of religion. 

5. Work Schedule

Acceptable: “Can you meet the attendance requirements of the position for which you’re applying?”

Unacceptable: “Do you have any health conditions that would lead to absences from work?”

Why: It is against the law to discriminate against an applicant due to their potential disability. 

6. Race

Acceptable: There are no acceptable questions about the applicant’s race or color.

Unacceptable: Any questions that are geared towards determining the race of the applicant are unacceptable. 

Why: Trying to figure out an applicant’s race could lead to the assumption that you are discriminating against them because of their answer. 

7. Citizenship

Acceptable: “Will you be able to prove you are employable if you are offered the job?”

Unacceptable: “What nationality are you?”

Why: Again, discriminating against an applicant because of their nationality is illegal, however, most jobs in the United States require candidates to be a u.s. citizen.  

8. National Origin

Acceptable: “What languages can you read, write or speak?” “How fluent are you?”

Unacceptable: Any questions about an applicant’s lineage or date of entry into the U.S. 

9. Education

Acceptable: “Tell me about your educational background.”

Unacceptable: “When did you graduate high school?” “When did you receive your degree?” 

Why: This again pertains to discriminating against someone because of their age. 

10. Experience

Acceptable: “What is your work experience?” “Do you have experience with the U.S. Armed Forces?” “Why did you leave your last job?”

Unacceptable: “What type of discharge did you receive from the military?” 

Why: Laws prohibit you from discriminating against military members who were honorably discharged, but you may also run into discrimination trouble if the applicant’s discharge was less than honorable.

Criminal Background

Acceptable: Only follow-up inquiries to the application are acceptable.

Unacceptable: “Have you ever been arrested/indicted for a crime?” 

Why: You are not allowed to inquire about an applicant’s criminal background after the interview. 

11. Relatives

Acceptable: “Do any of your relatives work for the company?” “What are their names?”

Unacceptable: “Are you married?” “What relatives live with you?” “With whom do you reside?”

Why: This line of questioning could lead to uncovering if the applicant is married or has children, which can be illegal to discriminate against.  

12. Physical Condition

Acceptable: “Can you perform the essential functions of the position for which you are interviewing?”

Unacceptable: “Are you disabled?” “Are you healthy?” Any questions concerning Workers’ Compensation claims are also unacceptable. 

Why: Again, it is illegal to discriminate against an applicant for their potential disability. 

If you need more help with hiring and interviewing, Homebase has a great solution. Check out our Hiring and Onboarding page and how to reduce interview no-shows to learn more about how we can optimize your hiring process and help find you the best possible candidate quickly and easily.

Acceptable interview questions FAQs

What are some good job interview questions?

Here’s a list of some acceptable questions to ask a candidate during a job interview:

  • Can you tell me a little about yourself and your work history?
  • Do you have any salary expectations?
  • What do you consider to be your greatest weakness?
  • Can you give me some good reasons we should hire you?
  • What do you consider to be your greatest strength?
  • Do you have any salary expectations?
  • Can you tell me why you chose to leave your previous company?

What is the best way to prepare for an interview?

The interview process takes practice. Thinking of job-related information, and trying to keep it organized is a good first step. Here are some helpful tips for interviews:

  • Know your job candidates, or at least as best you can, based on the application, resume, and references.
  • Understand the job requirements and job description.
  • Prepare many of your questions in advance, as well as answers to questions from the candidate.
  • Understand what is considered illegal interview questions, and know how to avoid them.
  • Use an interview scoring sheet to help rate and measure applicants

What are interviewers not allowed to ask?

In most cases, interviewers are absolutely not allowed to ask about things like the sexual orientation of the candidate, the current address of the candidate, religious affiliation, medical history, and unless relevant to the position, arrest records, and criminal records.

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