Questions to Avoid During an Interview: Hiring Tips for Small Business Owners

When entrepreneurs or startuppers are on the hunt for new talent, they have the sole responsibility for all hiring procedures. But there are several legal issues left out of consideration by those who are far from recruiting practices. An innocent inquiry “Should I add a picture to my resume?” makes a professional HR think of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

All inquiries disclosing an applicant’s age, race, or even the year of college graduation can be regarded as offensive and illegal. Here are some tips on the questions never to be asked, designed to make the hiring process for small business owners fair and smooth.

How to Display Respect for Workforce Diversity

As an employer, you should understand that taking the risks of discrimination claims seriously harms the business’s reputation. During the interview, you should avoid any questions implying violations of the laws prohibiting job discrimination. If it is beside your purpose, it’s better to take into consideration the following things:

  1. the laws against discriminatory practices affecting the interview process to follow;
  2. the list of the questions that potentially violate the candidate’s rights to avoid.

Federal Laws to Follow

Having a preference for candidates of a certain race, color, gender, age, sex, national origin, disability, religious or political beliefs is regulated and prosecuted by federal and state laws. The lawsdetermining interview questions include the prohibition to violate a candidate’s privacy or anti-discrimination rights.

Here are the most decisive federal laws addressing inequity:

  • Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA);
  • Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA);
  • CivilRightsActof 1991;
  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA);
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA);
  • CivilRightsActof 1964;
  • EqualPayActof 1963.

Some of them, such as The Civil Rights Act, ADA, and GINA apply to the companies with 15+ employees, and the ADEA applies to the private businesses with 20+ employees. To maintain equity in the workplace, you should keep in mind the legal issues with making the environment free of hate, and check with your state for specifics that concern the protection of the candidates against discrimination.

Legal Don’ts for Interview Questions

A diverse workforce is a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining the best people to improve the business prospects. That is why an experienced HR representative treats all demographic and personal characteristics of candidates as a red flag. To exclude harassment issues you should avoid the questions relating to the following subjects:

  • age / retirement;
  • genderidentity / sexualpreference;
  • race / national origin / social origin;
  • religionbeliefs;
  • medical condition / genetic information / disabilities;
  • family status/kids/pregnancy or planning;
  • finances / previous salary (if applicable);
  • criminalhistory (ifapplicable).

Questions You Can’t Legally Ask

Let’s take a closer look at the common but inappropriate questions that can get misunderstood by the interviewee. We’ve collected the examples of laws governing inadvisable questions and added some of their acceptable alternatives to ask:

Age / Retirement 

  • Howoldareyou?
  • What year of your graduating from high school?
  • How many years are left till your retirement?
  • Is our younger work culture an issue for you?

According to The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, no discrimination against an applicant or employee due to their age (40+) is allowed. The level of education is the thing that really matters. If age is a job-related requirement, such as to be 21 to hold a specific license, you can ask if the candidates will be able to provide proof of meeting it if hired. The best way to ask younger applicants about their age is:

  • Are you older than the minimum age requirement for work under the FLSA’s child labor laws?

Gender Identity / Sex Preferences 

  • What is your sexual orientation? 
  • Are you comfortable being one of the only women/men here? 
  • Do you wish to be addressed as Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms.? 
  • What is the name (gender) of your spouse?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 stands for the absence of employers’ discrimination against individuals based on sex or gender. Also, both men and women are protected with The Equal Pay Act of 1963 that prevents any wage discrimination. Mind that unless sex is a bona fide occupational qualification and is essential to the position there are no acceptable job-related questions.

Race / National Origin 

  • Where are you (your parents) from? 
  • Are you a U.S. citizen?
  • What is your racial identity (ethnicity)? 
  • What is your native language? 

National origin is the subject matter of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prevents employment discrimination. No hiring decision based on race or color is legal and no alternative questions can be used. Completing an employment eligibility verification form will be helpful to find out whether a candidate is allowed to work in the USA. The only permissible inquiry based on a job requirement is the following:

  • What languages do you speak, read or write fluently? 


  • Whatreligionareyou? 
  • What are your religious beliefs? 
  • What religious holidays with time off do you observe? 
  • What church do you attend? 

Also, as an employer, you should avoid asking for references from any religious leader whether it is a minister, imam, rabbi, pastor, or priest. Religious discrimination in the workplace is the subject of protection by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And the only exceptions are certain religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, or societies where employers are leaning toward hiring individuals of the same affiliations.

Medical Condition / Genetic information / Disabilities

  • Do you have physical or mental health conditions? 
  • Are you taking prescribed drugs? 
  • How did you become disabled? 
  • Have you ever filed a worker’s compensation claim?  

ADA guarantees equal rights in the workplace for all qualified individuals with disabilities. And the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 protects candidates from employment discrimination based on their genetic information. Mind that employers generally cannot require medical examinations until after an applicant has been given a conditional job offer or make pre-employment inquiries about an applicant’s disability. However, you can ask an applicant the following:

  • Are you able to carry out the essential functions of the role (with or without reasonable accommodation)? 

Family / Kids / Pregnancy 

  • Are you married? Do you plan on having a family?
  • What does your husband/wife do? 
  • How many kids have you got, and what are your child care arrangements? 
  • Are you pregnant (able to have children)?

Though you might be interested in the candidate’s personal life, no personal inquiries about their family, carer’s duties, and kids are possible except for the proposition to tell about themselves. You can ask something that is based on business necessity as follows:

  • Can you meet our work schedules (be able to overwork)? 
  • Are there any commitments preventing you from meeting attendance requirements?
  • What hours can you work? Can you work on weekends and holidays? 
  • Are you willing to relocate or travel if necessary?

Finances / Previous Salary

  • Do you have any debt or have you ever filed for bankruptcy?
  • Do you have any wage garnishments?
  • What is your current salary? 
  • How much did you make at your previous jobs? 

Personal finances and credits are not topics for discussion as the Fair Credit Reporting Act protects consumer credit information and regulates who can access it. Salary history laws in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Vermont ban even asking candidates about their recent salaries to promote equal pay in the workplace and close the wage gap. To make a fair compensation offer you may ask the following:

  • Can you tell me about your salary expectations?


  • Have you ever been convicted (arrested) of a crime? 
  • Why did you commit a crime? 
  • How many speeding tickets do you have?

As an employer, you want to reassure your work environment is a secure place, that is why you are curious about an applicant’s past. Washington D.C., California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont with ban-the-box laws prevent employers from asking candidates criminal history until after a conditional job offer has been made.

Unlike any inquiries relating to arrests or convictions, a background check is legit to learn everything you can about a candidate. Butsome states limit the number of years to look back into a candidate’s criminal history. Hiring decisions must be made based on how the criminal history relates to the position. But your responsibility is treating the candidates with dignity and respect at all times, whether they are applying for a vacancy or landing the interview.

About the Author

Gillian Grunewald

Gillian is a talented writer with a strong research approach in the career field. Has over 12 years of experience in resume, LinkedIn profile writing and editing. EducationMasterofFineArts, WritingEasternWashingtonUniversity.


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