Know Your Rights: What Interviewers Can't Ask You

Know Your Rights: What Interviewers Can't Ask You

Fortunately, most businesses recognize the value of hiring a diverse workforce, and they make sure interviewers understand and respect that goal. For those companies, equal employment opportunities are the norm. However, discrimination still occurs during job interviews every day, which can prevent qualified candidates from being hired and subvert the benefits that a diverse workforce creates.

To be sure, one of the most insidious settings where your rights can be violated is the job interview. The questioner may be prejudiced or ignorant; whatever the reason, you are asked questions that employers are not permitted to ask job applicants. Here’s an overview of inappropriate questions to be ready for.

1: Questions about your race and nationality

An employer cannot ask what race you are, or whether you are biracial or multiracial. Asking what country you or your parents and grandparents came from is also prohibited. Instead, all of the interview questions should focus on the job and your suitability for the job.

Examples of questions that cross the line include "That's an unusual name; is it French?" or, "Is that a French accent? Is French your native language?" Similarly, interviewers should not ask you whether you are a U.S. citizen or how long you have lived in the United States.

The interviewer can legally ask you questions about whether you are authorized to work in the United States. The interviewer can also ask what languages you speak fluently and what your current address and telephone number is. Beyond these basic questions that are designed to measure your suitability for the job, you should not be asked about your race, nationality, or native language.

2: Questions about your health and age

Your job interview should not include questions about your health or your age. Asking "How are you?" is permitted--and your answer should always be, "I'm well. And how are you?" Beyond this conversational ritual, an interviewer cannot ask you questions that are likely to reveal that you have a disability. The interview should not include any questions about illnesses or health conditions you have. You should not be asked about how many days of work you have missed in the past because of illness.

Questions about whether you are currently taking medication or whether you've ever filed a workers' compensation claim are also off limits, because your answers to those questions could reveal an illness or an injury. Even if you have voluntarily disclosed a hidden disability or illness, or if your disability or illness is visible, the interviewer cannot question you about your health.

Age is also a protected class if you're over 40 years old, so questions about age are also off-limits. The interviewer cannot ask you how old you are or how much longer you plan to work before you retire.

An interviewer can, however, ask questions about whether you can perform the physical requirements of the job; for example, whether you can lift boxes of a certain weight or can stand on your feet for long periods, if those are requirements of the job. An interviewer can also ask how many days of work you missed in a given year for any reason, not just because you were sick. An interviewer can ask if you use illegal drugs, but cannot ask about prescription drugs. Similarly, the interviewer can ask if you are over the age of 18, and he or she can ask you about your long-term career goals.

3: Questions about your gender and family status

Unless your name is "Pat" or "Chris" and you're interviewing by e-mail or over the phone, your gender will probably be obvious to the interviewer. Nevertheless, the interviewer can't ask if you're male or female, and the interviewer certainly can't ask if you've always been male or female. If you are undergoing a transgender procedure, the interviewer cannot ask you which sex you were at birth, which sex you are transitioning to, or any other questions about your transition.

Nor should the interviewer ask if you are married, if you have children, or if you plan to start a family. It is illegal for an employer to make a hiring decision based on your family status, so there is no reason for these questions to come up during a job interview.

An interviewer may incorrectly make assumptions that parents are not as available for work as non-parents. The interviewer can ask if you are available for work on certain days of the week or during a certain shift, but he or she cannot ask if you have a spouse or children or if you have family commitments that affect your work hours.

Know your rights before the job interview. If a prospective employer asks illegal questions during a job interview and you don't get hired, contact a representative from your local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office to find out what you can do to enforce your rights.