Interviews…they’re on their best behavior, but are you?

I’ll leave Rikka to be the “what to ask” expert, but I can definitely share what NOT to ask and why you will want to avoid them like the plague. Asking illegal interview questions will lead right to discriminatory charges if they can be led back to race, color, religion, national origin, sex, birthplace, age, disability and marital/family status. The ability to match the question to a specific job requirement behind the question would need to be pretty clear in order for a charge not to be filed.

Some common illegal interview questions people ask & a better way to get the information you need:


  • I see you walked in with a limp, is that temporary? What happened?

    • Better way: IGNORE this altogether. You can ask if they are able to perform the specific functions of the position. Nothing more.

    • Why: If you even give the perception you feel they are disabled – whether they are or not – they can file suit. Seriously.

  • How long have you lived in this country?

    • Better way: How familiar are you with our customer base?

    • Why: This makes the presumption that their national origin is something other than what you are looking for. And really, in this day and age, how could you know that someone wasn’t just born in the next city over?

  • Do you have a car?

    • Better way: Will you be able to comply with the attendance and punctuality policy?

    • Why: Unless the position requires that this person provide their own transportation for company work, this question should never be asked.

  • Military experience huh? Why’d you get out? Or – Still in? Getting deployed anytime soon?

    • Better way: How have you used the training received in your military work to advance your civilian work? Do you foresee any upcoming events that will require your absence from work for an extended time?

    • Why: USERRA. Don’t ask about their discharge if they’ve gotten out.

  • I see a ring on your finger – married or engaged? Any plans for starting a family?

    • Better way: This position may require overtime and potentially some travel. Will this present any problems for you?

    • Why: Again, this leads back to attendance and punctuality. Kids get sick, cars don’t start, school gets called off. You’re fishing for information of “what ifs” that don’t truly gauge if this applicant can do the job or not.

  • So what church do you belong to?

    • Better way: The company recognizes the following holidays – are you able to work the required schedule?

    • Why: Discrimination based on religion. Don’t do it.

  • Have you ever been arrested?

    • Better way: Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

    • Why: an arrest record cannot determine their ability to do a job. A conviction could negate their eligibility, for, example if you are hiring for an auto mechanic who has a conviction for auto theft.


But what about when it’s not you bringing up those topics?


So many times, the interviewee will share personal information with you that you did not ask for. Your best bet is to acknowledge what they said and steer the conversation back to “safer” ground. For example:

Interviewee: I took 6 years off to stay at home with my children while my husband brought home the bacon. I worked harder in those 6 years than I ever have before or will again.

You: Thank you for explaining the gap in your work experience listed on your resume. What have you done to prepare yourself for returning to working outside the home?

Don’t say: How many kids? How old are they? Any of them have health issues? Are you planning on having any more children? What school do they attend?

Why? You’re fishing for information on potential absenteeism, illnesses, and in some cases, social stature based on the school.

Here’s where I ‘fess up. I’ve done these…as the interviewee, though. I have shared information about my husband’s deployment, my children, and my broken arm – all of it. Because I’m a conversationalist. I am an over-sharer. I know this about myself and have had to make some adjustments. I’m naturally curious and will definitely THINK more questions than I ask during an interview.
You should try to do the same.

Guest HR Expert & Contributing Author

Steph Winterquist Circle Headshot

Stephanie Winterquist PHR, and SHRM-CP has been volunteering with SHRM since 2009, most recently in the State Director role for the ND SHRM State Council. She works with the largest hospital system in the upper Midwest in the role of HR Coordinator. She has been in HR for over 15 years in a variety of industries.

Her passion is people and she has been fortunate enough to work with and volunteer with many HR and business professionals. Stephanie lives in a suburb of Fargo, ND with her husband and three sons.

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