How to Handle Illegal Interview Questions: Insights from Yale’s Office of Career Strategy

Job interviews can be nerve-wracking experiences, and it’s essential to be prepared for all kinds of questions, including the ones that might cross legal boundaries. According to the Office of Career Strategy at Yale University, there are specific questions that employers should avoid asking during an interview process. In this article, we’ll explore what constitutes an illegal interview question, provide examples, and offer guidance on how to handle such situations professionally.

Understanding Illegal Interview Questions

Illegal interview questions are those that violate federal and state laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on specific characteristics. These include questions related to:

  • Race, Color, or National Origin
  • Religion
  • Sex or Gender (including pregnancy, gender identity, or sexual orientation)
  • Age
  • Disability Status
  • Citizenship or Immigration Status
  • Marital or Family Status
  • Arrest or Conviction Record (in some cases)

The underlying principle is that these questions are generally irrelevant to the candidate’s ability to perform the job duties and may unfairly discriminate against applicants based on protected characteristics.

Examples of Illegal Interview Questions

To better understand what constitutes an illegal question, let’s look at some examples provided by Yale’s Office of Career Strategy:

Work/Visa Status and Citizenship

Illegal: “Are you a U.S. citizen?” “You sound like you have an accent, where are you from?” “Where were your parents born?” “What is your native language?”

Legal: “Are you authorized to work in the U.S.?” “What languages do you speak (if relevant to the position)?”

Marital/Family Status

Illegal: “Are you married?” “Do you have children?” “If so, what do you do for child care?” “Are you planning to have children soon?” “Have you ever been divorced?” “Where is your spouse employed?”

Legal: “Are you willing and able to put in the amount of overtime and/or travel the position requires?” “Are you willing to relocate?”


Illegal: “How old are you?” “When were you born?” “How long have you been working?”

Legal: “Do you have any concerns about handling the long hours and extensive travel that this job entails?”

Disability Status

Illegal: “Do you have any disabilities or medical conditions?” “How is your health?” “Do you take any prescription drugs?” “Have you been diagnosed with a mental illness?” “Have you ever been an alcoholic?” “Have you ever been in rehab?”

Legal: “Are you able to perform this job with or without reasonable accommodation?” “Do you have any conditions that would keep you from performing this job?”


Illegal: “What is your religion?” “Are you practicing?”

Legal: “Can you work on weekends?” (should only be asked if the position requires working on weekends)

Arrest Record

Illegal: “Have you ever been arrested?”

Legal: “Have you ever been convicted of any crime other than a traffic violation?”

It’s important to note that these examples are not exhaustive, and employers should be cautious about asking any questions that could be perceived as discriminatory.

Handling Illegal Interview Questions

If you encounter an illegal interview question, the Office of Career Strategy at Yale University suggests three potential approaches:

  1. Answer it: If you believe the interviewer innocently asked the question without malicious intent, you can choose to answer it. Consider the context and the interviewer’s possible motivation for asking.

  2. Side-step it: You can politely refuse to answer the question directly but address the underlying concern that the interviewer may have. For example, if asked about your family status, you could respond by reassuring the interviewer that your personal life will not interfere with your professional responsibilities.

  3. Question the relevance: You can respectfully ask the interviewer how the question relates to the position you’re interviewing for. This may alert them to the inappropriate nature of their question. If you feel the question is discriminatory, you can refuse to answer and either change the subject or excuse yourself from the interview.

It’s important to remember that any Yale student who feels an interviewer or employer has acted inappropriately should contact the Office of Career Strategy for further guidance and support.


Navigating illegal interview questions can be challenging, but being aware of your rights and prepared to handle such situations professionally is crucial. By understanding what constitutes an illegal question and having a strategy in place to address them, you can protect yourself from potential discrimination and maintain a positive interview experience.

Remember, the Office of Career Strategy at Yale University is a valuable resource for students and alumni, providing guidance and support throughout the job search and interview process. Utilize their expertise and resources to ensure a successful and legally compliant job search journey.

Admissions Advice: Interviews


Which of the following questions is illegal to ask in a job interview?

According to employment law, illegal interview questions include any questions that don’t directly relate to your open roles. This means questions covering such topics as age, family, gender, marriage, nationality and religion are illegal questions to ask in an interview.

What interview questions are unlawful?

We recommend that you avoid asking applicants about personal characteristics that are protected by law, such as race, color, religion, sex, national origin or age.

Is it illegal for a job applicant to answer illegal questions during an interview?

Generally, if it can be used to discriminate, it’s off limits. If an employer asks illegal employment questions, you don’t have to answer. If you feel they discriminated, you can contact the EEOC.

What are three illegal questions that you Cannot ask a prospective job candidate?

You may not ask questions about race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age, or ancestry. You may not ask in a series of interviews for a given position, questions directed at one sex and not of the other.

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