Believe it or not, some of the worst interview questions are the ones hiring managers ask without even realizing they shouldn’t.
For instance, if you find out someone attended the same high school you attended, what’s wrong with asking them what year they graduated?
This seemingly innocent mistake, along with countless others, can put you in legal hot water.
In addition, there are some questions that aren’t legally wrong but can still cause embarrassment or awkwardness during an interview.
If you want to present your company in the best light, as well as find out if a candidate has the skill set to meet the qualifications of a role, avoid these inappropriate interview questions and discover what you could say instead.
Completely off-limits interview questions
Asking any of these interview questions may cause you to disqualify someone based on an assumption. This makes these questions discriminatory and could expose your company to potential lawsuits.
1. How old are you?
Asking a candidate their age during an interview can lead to trouble. You could make an unfair, pre-determined decision based simply on age.
For instance, maybe an applicant is in their 50s and starting a second career. You may assume the candidate isn’t tech savvy and won’t catch on, so you decide not to hire them. This is ageism and is against the law.
It’s quite possible you could get an idea of how old a person is when looking at their résumé. However, you should not come right out and ask, “How old are you?”
You could say: “Hey, I noticed from your résumé that you spent 10 years at XYZ company, 15 years at ABC company and five years at 123 company. This is an entry-level position. Are you still interested in the position?”
2. What is your religion?
Someone’s religion has nothing to do with their skill set and is not an indication whether or not they can perform well in a role. It’s usually a personal choice many people keep private.
You should not ask someone about their religion because it can cause you to have bias. It’s illegal to automatically eliminate a candidate because their religious views contradict yours, and you assume their holidays and customs will interfere with the job.
The good news is, you can still find out if a candidate meets the job requirements without asking them about their religion. However, keep in mind employers may need to provide a reasonable accommodation to an applicant’s or employee’s scheduling needs based on their religious beliefs.
You could say: “This position may occasionally require you to participate in working lunches and some weekend work. Will you be available to adhere to these requirements?”
3. Do you have any illnesses that may keep you from performing these job requirements?
Although it’s very important to hire someone who is physically capable of getting the job done, you don’t want to draw conclusions just because someone has an illness. If you ask this question, it can make the candidate uncomfortable, while gearing your company up to step on a legal landmine.
For example, Alicia has an auto-immune disease requiring her to go to regularly scheduled doctor’s appointments. You may hear this and conclude she’s going to get sick a lot and probably won’t be able to perform the requirements of the position. However, in Alicia’s last role, she was perfectly capable of managing her appointments and keeping up with her work.
You could say: “Alicia, this position would require you to be in the office eight to nine hours a day. Some of those hours require you to walk around the campus and meet with your team daily. Are you able to perform the essential functions of the position?”
4. How much do you weigh?
Besides being an extremely personal question, asking someone how much they weigh is typically not even relevant when applying for a position. Making a decision based on weight may violate state discrimination laws as well.
There’s no way to look at a candidate and decide if they can or cannot lift 40 pounds or perform strenuous work. Instead, choose to avoid drawing conclusions and just be crystal clear about what is required in the position.
You could say: “This position involves roofing work, requiring you to repeatedly go up and down a ladder with heavy tools. Are you able to perform these essential functions?” (Note, however, that you should ask every applicant this question.)
5. Are you a disabled veteran?
If you come out and ask a candidate if they’re a disabled veteran and their answer is yes, then this may lead to the next obvious question: “What’s your disability?”
Now you’ve made things uncomfortable since the candidate will feel obligated to talk about their disability, when they really may not want to.
It doesn’t matter if this person is missing their pinky toe or an entire limb, you’ll want to ensure you’re not making a predetermined decision on whether they can do the job or not.
In addition to making assumptions about a candidate’s physical ability, you don’t want to speculate about the person’s mental ability. A biased interviewer could presume the veteran is going to be high-strung and not able to take direction.
And it’s just not possible to know this.
Again, there’s no harm in noticing their résumé shows military history and you saying, “Oh, I see you were in the army four years.” But you can’t just flat-out ask them if they’re a disabled veteran. By asking such a question, you expose your company to a claim of disability discrimination.
You could say: “We are a veteran-friendly organization and we support our troops. We’d love to hire more veterans, and many members of our leadership team are even veterans. Is this something you’d be interested in discussing further?”
Completely awkward interview questions
Next, there are questions out there that aren’t legally wrong but can definitely lead to an embarrassing interview. Again, it’s not always what you say – sometimes it’s how you say it. And the five questions below are simply in bad taste and best avoided.
6. Do you need a flexible schedule with you having so many children?
Let’s say you’re in the middle of conducting an interview and the candidate mentions she has three little ones in daycare – all under the age of five.
As the interviewer, you panic because you assume she’s overwhelmed. Will she make it to work on time? Will she have to constantly chauffeur kids back and forth to daycare, doctor’s appointments, preschool, play dates, etc.?
So, you have a knee-jerk reaction and blurt out an inappropriate interview question.
In reality, what may seem like so many children to you may be nothing to the candidate. She could be running things like clockwork and possibly considering having three more kids – reinforcing the fact it’s to no one’s benefit to assume.
Moreover, this information could have an adverse impact on females and lead to claims of gender discrimination.
You could say: “This position requires 50 percent travel, so is this a qualification you think you could meet? Or do you see this posing any problems for you?”
7. You look like you travel a lot from your Facebook feed. Do you expect a lot of vacation time?
When you ask a question like this, you’ve changed the tone of the interview. Now the candidate knows you’ve looked them up online and judged them, which can come across as a little “big brother” at best – and just plain creepy at worst.
The reality is, social media is really one-sided and you can’t rely on it to help you make a decision about someone’s ability to succeed in a position. Besides, this person could’ve had a previous role that required travel to exotic places.
But at the end of the day, their vacation habits have nothing to do with their ability to perform in their role.
You could say: “This position starts off with three weeks’ paid time off, and we love that about our organization.”
8. I notice you drive a luxury car. What are your salary expectations for this position?
This is another question that would make a candidate cringe. If you ask a question like this, you’re assuming this person has an expensive lifestyle and is going to want a big salary. What if the vehicle was a gift?
Whatever the case, it’s not appropriate to ask about salary expectations based on a car.
Plus, this question could deter a candidate from even considering the role. You may run the ideal applicant away because they’re now concerned about their vehicle or think people will have the wrong impression about them – resulting in them getting the wrong impression about your company.
You could say: “This position pays $23 an hour. Does this meet your needs?”
9. Are you comfortable working with mostly women?
While there’s nothing wrong with being clear that the company could be owned by women and has many women in leadership roles, you wouldn’t want to phrase your questioning this way.
If you do, it could give the candidate cause for concern, leaving them to say, “I don’t have a problem with women. Do you?” You’ll sound like you’re making a big deal out of it, when maybe the thought hadn’t even crossed their minds.
You could say: “This organization was started by women, and I wanted to mention this because it’s something we’re really proud of.”
10. Tell me about a time in your receptionist role that you may have gotten a speeding ticket.
This kind of question is an interviewer’s inept attempt at asking what’s known as a behavioral interview question.
Behavioral interview questions elicit both positive and negative examples of behavior, which is necessary in determining job fit for a position. And they can be critical in order to get to the heart of the interview.
But some questioning can be out of bounds if it suggests inappropriate behavior. The sample question above has no connection to the role being filled and can lead the candidate to feel like they have to discuss their personal background.
You could say: “Tell me about a time when you had to handle a difficult phone call with someone in upper management.”
Safeguard your company with the right information
Interview-question mistakes can happen to even experienced hiring managers.
Knowing what to say and not say ahead of time can help you conduct your next interview with more confidence and peace of mind.
Want more useful tips to help guide you in all things HR? Download our free e-book: 7 most frequent HR mistakes and how to avoid them.