September 13, 2018

The Illegal Question in the Room


Today, I want to talk about the elephant in the room of recruiting — something that everybody knows but nobody likes to talk about. That elephant? Illegal interview questions.

I’ve often wondered how people could still be asking illegal questions in 2018, and my best guess is this: Hiring managers are rarely trained on how to interview people. After all, the interview process seems self-explanatory. Ask some questions, learn about the candidate, and decide whether or not they could do the job. However, because hiring managers are never trained on how to do interviews, the HR department never briefs them on illegal questions.

Why doesn’t HR go out of its way to make sure hiring managers know which questions they can’t ask? Probably because HR sees illegal questioning as so obvious that it’s not worth reviewing. Everyone knows what an appropriate interview question is, right?


Interviewing isn’t an inborn skill. Without proper training, hiring managers may not think too hard about what they should or shouldn’t say.

An interview question’s legality depends on the topic being discussed. Questions about religion, pregnancy status, disability, age, citizenship, race, marital status, or number of children should all be avoided, as they can very easily cross over into illegal territory. In certain states and cities, it is also illegal to ask candidates about their salary histories.

Why are these topics off limits? Because they can lead to discriminatory hiring decisions. Making these questions illegal helps us put the focus where it really belongs: on a candidate’s ability to do the job.

I have faced my own fair share of illegal interview questions before, including whether or not I’m married, if I have children, if I plan to have any children soon, and how old I am. If you haven’t been asked an illegal question before, I’m glad to hear it! However, you may not know what to do when an illegal question does come along.

If you’re asked an illegal question, it may seem like you have no good options. If you answer the question honestly, the hiring manager may use that information to discriminate against you. If you make a fuss and don’t answer, you definitely won’t be hired.

One interview coach shared with me that he likes to reply with something snappy. For example, he would respond to “Do you have any children?” with something like, “What I think you’re trying to ask is if I can do the job — and I’m totally up for it!”

While I do agree that this technique can be effective, I wonder if it’s even worth it. Do you really want to work for someone who would ask you illegal questions? That shows a certain level of unscrupulousness that can be a very bad sign in an employer.

I’ll be honest. When I’m asked illegal questions, I answer them in a kind and friendly way. Then, I make a mental note about the question and about the hiring manager. I know that anyone who asks questions like this isn’t someone for whom I’d want to work. So, my answer doesn’t really matter. I won’t be taking the job anyway.

A version of this article originally appeared on Copeland Coaching.

Angela Copeland is a career coach and CEO at her firm, Copeland Coaching.

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Angela Copeland is a career coach and CEO at her firm, Copeland Coaching ( She is host of the Copeland Coaching Podcast, and author of the career eBook "Breaking The Rules & Getting The Job". Follow Angela on Facebook (, Twitter (, and Instagram (