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Recruiting Wisdom

A Recruiter’s Guide to Avoiding Illegal Interview Questions

min read

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established to provide protection from discrimination in hiring various protected classes. It’s imperative to follow EEOC guidelines when interviewing candidates for your organization. Even a small lapse in judgment could result in asking an illegal question with costly consequences.

Here is a list of topics you will want to approach with professionalism and keen care.


Avoid: Stay clear of asking any questions that would indicate age. A common mistake is when a recruiter looks down at a resume, sees there is a common thread like attending the same college and the recruiter asks, “We went to the same university, what year did you graduate?” Seems harmless, right? Wrong. The candidate may think you are trying to backdoor into calculating their age by asking age indicative questions like this one. 

Allowed: It’s ok to ask if someone is at least 18 or older. You can also ask if they’d be available to provide proof of legal age. 

Criminal Record, Convictions & Arrests

Avoid: Probing into someone’s personal life and their arrest history can be seen as discriminatory. Strive to only ask questions during an interview that are relevant to the job qualifications. In fact, according to nelp.org there are 36 states and 150 cities across the US that have a “ban the box” ruling that prohibits employers from probing about criminal history before assessing job qualifications first. Bottom line, interview for qualifications during the interview process, and if you decide to extend an offer, follow your state’s guidelines for proceeding with a criminal background check vendor. 


Avoid: Another question that appears harmless but must be omitted from recruiter small talk during interviews is “Where were you born?” or “Where are your parents from?” This could be perceived as fishing to fact find if they were born in the U.S. or a naturalized citizen.

Allowed: If it’s a condition of employment, an applicant can be asked to submit verification of legal right to work in the U.S. However, before you interview for any position, work with the hiring manager or HR team to understand your company’s policy and their ability to sponsor visas. 

Gender, Height, Weight and Disability. 

Avoid: For most professions, none of these physical attributes have nothing to do with their ability to do the job. We all know it’s a common societal faux pas to ask about weight but height isn’t as obvious. I’ve seen it many times where someone comes in taller than expected for an interview and someone will ask, “Wow you are tall! You must play basketball. How tall are you?” You may not know that the individual struggled with their height all their life and at one point was even discriminated against because of it. Be self-aware that a physical attribute that may have never crossed your mind affects their life greatly. 

Allowed: If physical requirements are listed in the job qualifications for the role, that’s an exception to the rule. This must be well-documented and guided by your HR team. Unless it’s clearly stated in the requirements of the job, avoid it altogether. A rare example could be if someone was interviewing for a women’s bathroom and shower facilities at a spa. 

Marital Status, Parent Status, Pregnancy and Family Planning

Avoid: Parents have many protections in the workplace and it can be seen as discriminatory if a pregnant woman, who feels she meets all the qualifications, doesn’t get the job yet recalls being grilled on her childcare plans after giving birth. Being a career parent is challenging - sure - but it’s not up to the company to decide if the candidate is up for the challenge. It’s also not legal to inquire about someone’s spouse, what they do and how much money they make. During an interview, recruiters should only focus on the candidate in front of them and not their personal life outside of it. 

Race, Color, Ethnicity, Origin, Religion

Avoid: Be keen on getting caught in a sticky situation by asking a candidate what religious holidays they may observe as you are bragging about the healthy PTO plan. We are an involved society and should make inclusivity and diversity in the workplace a top priority. Not only would it be a PR disaster for your company to discriminate during these times but it’s just plain mean. Focus on keeping all candidate experiences equitable and keep their qualifications and what they bring to the table at the forefront of the conversation.

Allowed: One caveat in this area that may be addressed is language. If fluency in a particular language is necessary for the job, you may ask it since this would be an example of a required qualification. 

Sexual Orientation

Avoid: There is no reason to need to know what someone’s sexual orientation is during the job interview or in the workplace. Touching on making diversity, equity and inclusion a priority in the workplace again, make sure you never let it slip in this category. A person’s sexual orientation doesn’t affect their qualifications for the job. Stray away from the conversation. 

Final Thoughts

One of my biggest tips for recruiting teams I train is to build out thorough interview plans for every single interviewer that will meet your candidates. Ensure their block of time is stacked with relevant topics to cover that addresses the qualifications of the role, so they don’t go off-script and engage in risky small talk. If your company has the budget to invest in software that enables interviews to submit feedback, go for it. This will keep your interviewers laser-focused on staying objective and avoiding illegal interview questions.

Christina Wells

Christina Wells is the VP, People at PLANOLY, and Advisor to Flo Recruit. She is a regular contributor to the Flo Recruit blog and more. Connect with her about recruiting, human resources, and learning & development best practices on Linkedin.

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