Politics and religion are the two topics most families know not to venture into over dinner.In some countries and cultures, it’s downright rude to pry into these personal beliefs. At my family’s Thanksgiving table, it’s dangerous at best. In job interviews, topics such as these are exceptionally bad form.
You want to get to know candidates, and you want to ensure they’ll be a good fit for the role and existing company culture. What you don’t want to do is cross the line between professional and prying.
Other interviewers have made these mistakes before, meaning you don’t have to go through the same embarrassment of overstepping or offending. Even more of a liability, certain interview questions are illegal to ask and should be avoided lest your company is in the mood for a lawsuit.
Before you walk into the interview room, look over these faux pas so all your questions result in positive impressions.
Illegal Interview Questions
These questions are illegal to ask in a job interview according to both federal and state laws. A limited few can be asked if an employer is able to prove that those qualities are relevant and necessary to fulfill a job’s specific requirements.
These exceptions are referred to as bona fide occupational qualifications, or BFOQs, and gender, age, national origin, and religion are the few exceptions.
Age - Do not ask how old a candidate is.
Race - Do not ask about someone’s ancestry, nationality, or family history.
Sex - Do not ask questions about a person’s sex or physical anatomy.
Religion - Do not pry into an individual's religious or moral belief system.
Birthplace - Do not question where an individual was born, or whether they have citizenship in your country.
Disability Status - Do not ask an individual if they have a disability or any other mental or physical limitations. These questions are prompted in many initial application processes, but individuals have a right to not reply.
Family Status - Do not ask whether an individual is married, unmarried, has kids, or any other details about their family status.
For interviewees: What to do when asked illegal questions
Interviewees have the right to not respond or to move past any of the aforementioned questions. In cases of discomfort, interviewees may consider leaving the interview, as interviews are as much for the candidate as they are for the company. In all situations, ask yourself if the question at hand has anything to do with your ability to perform the job.
If the questions are irrelevant and seem to come from a place of discrimination, move past them. Interviewers can ask questions around these topics, such as what hours per week you are available. If you have regular conflicts regarding your religion, those conflicts are something for the interviewer to be aware of.
Your specific beliefs, however, remain your private information.
Questions with no relevance to the job
These questions aren’t always offensive, but they are unnecessary. While you may think it’s funny to sit candidates through an in-person Buzzfeed quiz, they’ll leave feeling as though you’ve wasted their time and were never truly interested in their candidacy.
In order for candidates to take your company and the interview seriously, avoid questions such as the following which have no real place in a professional conversation.
What’s your favorite BLANK? - Whether it be color, or TV show, or PowerPuff Girl, there is no need for you to know your candidate’s favorites or interests. If they come up naturally in conversation, that’s great – lean into that human connection and see if you have something in common. But spending your limited time with candidates asking questions unrelated to their experience and potential will at best case serve to confuse them, and at worst case it will annoy.
Questions about drinking or other nighttime activities - An interview is not the time to find out if a candidate goes dancing on the weekend, if they drink alcohol, or other nighttime and weekend activities. If drinking and going out is a part of your company culture, bring that up so a candidate understands how your employees like to socialize. However, an interview room is not the same as a check-up, and you have no business asking candidates how often they drink or smoke.
What, If Questions - Avoid questions regarding hypothetical scenarios that would never happen at this role. Unless the role is creative and you’re trying to test the candidate’s ability to think of content on their feet, there’s no reason to present them with unrelated scenarios. This reads as an unexpected test, which is not appropriate unless you are actively trying to test the candidate.
Too Personal - Interviewees don’t know you. They don’t know your intentions or your personality, and the questions your employees are okay with might not be the same questions your applicants wish to answer. In an interview setting, avoid getting too personal, and stay away from any questions that resemble the following.
Questions about a person’s childhood - While a person’s upbringing is a central aspect of who they are, you have no business directly referring to it in an interview. If you’re curious about their background, maybe ask questions such as, “What’s a time you had to overcome a difficult situation?” If their childhood is a relevant response, let them decide to talk about it.
Emotional Information - As we mentioned earlier, marital or family status is not appropriate for interviews. You also shouldn’t ask how candidates feel about their relationships or relationship status, how they’re doing emotionally, what mental health issues they’re going through, so on and so forth.
Physical Appearance - A person’s weight, facial features, and style of dress are all personal characteristics that also have no business being mentioned in a professional setting.
For one, a lot of comments on physical appearance can be construed as harassment, if not just plain rude. For two, you never know a person’s situation. While complimenting a blouse or a bag is okay, commentary on the product’s quality or brand might go beyond comfortable conversation.
Blatantly Discriminatory - We are all aware that there are several remaining inequalities between men and women, as well as between varying races and ethnicities. Avoid asking any interview questions that have their basis in primitive stereotypes and which only serve to reinforce these inequalities.
Do not discuss birth control, family planning, or hormonal details with women. Do not bring up stereotypes regarding a person’s race or ethnicity – questions you already should not have asked.
For interviewees: What to do when the interview gets too personal
As before, feel free to communicate to a potential employer that you feel uncomfortable answering that question, or explain why you feel it is not something they should have asked. If you’d like, turn the situation around by asking them a question.
“Could you please explain the relevance of this question to my performance in the role,” is a great way to reverse the question without seeming argumentative in an interview. If they don’t have a good answer for why they’re asking this question, you are justified in thinking it is inappropriate, and the employer has just given you a reason to not answer them.
Trick Questions - Some interviewers like to play games with interviewees by asking them philosophical or trick questions to see if they can get an interesting or insightful response. However, these questions can often fall into the category of irrelevant. I would stay away from any kind of interview question that can be classified as a “trick.”
You didn’t bring in candidates to prank them and make them look like fools. They aren’t an audience volunteer at a comedy show. You’re trying to show them the engaging elements of your company that will make them want to work for you. These questions are slightly relevant in jobs where employees have to think on their feet or use a certain type of logic to arrive at the best conclusion.
For example, nurses and other healthcare professionals are required to make life-or-death decisions on a moment’s notice and on minimal sleep or downtime. For a job such as this, some psychological or moral questions might be necessary. For an account executive role, they would not be appropriate.
For interviewees: How to respond to trick questions
When asked trick questions, it’s natural to want a moment to think of a reply. Feel free to take a minute to dig inside your brain and develop your answer. The pause may feel awkward, but your answer will benefit. Try and think of the question as a metaphor, and answer in such a way that exposes your values.
The actual question at hand is not what the employer wants answered. They want to know your priorities and understand your critical thinking skills to determine how you arrived at a decision. As with the other types of questions, if any “what-ifs” read as inappropriate or unnecessary, use your voice to speak up and say so.
There’s a reason some interview questions are illegal, and it’s because the power of employment can sometimes cause employers to take advantage of their interviewees.
G2 Crowd employees almost 200 employees, almost all of whom have held other positions before accepting their current role. It is inevitable that the employees and teammates here would have their own anecdotes regarding suspect, humorous, or wildly inappropriate interview questions.
Allow these first-hand retellings to steer you away from providing candidates similarly awkward experiences.
“I came into a company as a referral by a friend. As soon as the interview began, the lead asked me what all my friend had told me to say. A lot of companies have referral programs, but it’s still not appropriate to assume a candidate has been ‘coached’ or otherwise given an unfair advantage."
– Jordan Wahl, Senior Content Marketing and SEO Specialist
“At a former interview, I was asked how much money I was making. First off, it is illegal in many states (like California) to ask that question and secondly, it is totally inappropriate and makes it unfair on how much you can counteroffer.” - Kevin Benson, Senior Global Event Specialist
“A former coworker of mine was asked what his religious views were, and if he was a ‘family man.’ The job had nothing to do with either questions.” - Romana Amato, Marketing Operations Manager
“I had a director of sales ask me if I was a lion or a gazelle. I shared I’d be the lion in the picture, but then he asked if I would hunt to eat or hunt for sport. It very poorly circled back to some cheesy sales reference.”
– Malcolm Brown, Business Development Representative
In conclusion - Don't ask crazy questions
There are a lot of power-hungry bosses out there who enjoy using interviews as a time to intimidate and strike fear into candidates. If that’s the kind of work environment your company enjoys, feel free to disregard all of the aforementioned advice (except for the “illegal questions” section – I strongly recommend you do not disregard federal and state law).
If you were asked one of these questions and feel uncomfortable with working in an environment that fosters an inappropriate interview process, you may want to learn how to decline a job offer politely and professionally.
If your hiring team is focused on using interviews as an opportunity to show off your fantastic organization and culture, then interviews will be inclusive, enjoyable experiences. They’re not meant to be easy; they should still challenge candidates and spur them to deliver the best responses possible.
But interviews are a reflection of the company standing on the other side of the glass. The questions you ask provide candidates an inside look into the heart of your organization, and give them an idea of what it’s like to work for you. The way you treat candidates in an interview is almost more important than the interview responses themselves.
Grace Pinegar is a lifelong storyteller with an extensive background in various forms such as acting, journalism, improv, research, and content marketing. She was raised in Texas, educated in Missouri, worked in Chicago, and is now a proud New Yorker. (she/her/hers)