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Quiz time! Which job interview questions are safe to ask?

September 01, 20233 min read

Quiz time! Which job interview questions are safe to ask? 

Which of the following questions can you safely ask candidates when interviewing them for a job? 

  1. When did you graduate high school? 

  2. Can you work weekends? 

  3. What’s your salary history? 

  4. Tell me about your family. 

  5. When did you first start working? 

  6. What’s your maiden name? 

  7. Where are you from? 

If you said any of those were safe, you’re vulnerable to stepping on one of the numerous landmines that dot the job-interviewing landscape. Each one of those questions has led to a successful claim of discrimination against a company. 

  • No. 1, “When did you graduate high school?” has been found to be an unsafe end run around age discrimination restrictions, as has No. 5, “When did you first start working.”

  • No. 2, “Can you work weekends?” could be a violation of limitations on quizzing candidates about their religious preferences. 

  • No. 3, “What’s your salary history?” and any other salary-related question would be illegal violations of gender- and race-based restrictions in California, Delaware, Massachuttes, New York, Oregon and Puerto Rico, as well as cities in several other states. 

  • No. 4, ”Tell me about your family,” runs afoul of restrictions on questions related to family planning, as would No. 6, “What’s your maiden name?” 

  • No. 7, “Where are you from?” which might innocently be asked if you detect an interesting accent or see an unusual name, violates rules banning discrimination based on national origin. 

The sad fact is, friendly job interviews can be dangerous to you and your company. Honest inquisitiveness can and does get punished based on how different candidates – and enforcement agencies – interpret your intentions. 

That doesn’t mean your interviews need to be dry, robotic and impersonal. There are four basic things you can do to help yourself avoid the landmines while still finding the right candidates to fill your job openings. 

  1. Hire an expert HR consultant well-versed on what’s legal and illegal to ask in job interviews and ask them to help you structure your hiring process. This is the best way to keep your business as safe as possible from discrimination complaints. If you decide not to do that, then … 

  2. Ask open-ended questions focused on a candidate’s ability to perform the duties necessary to be successful in the job. For example, instead of “How’s your health?” for a warehouse job, ask, “Are you able to lift packages up to 50 pounds, with or without reasonable accommodations?” Instead of “How old are you?” or “What year did you graduate high school?” ask a question about the minimum requirements for the job. For example, if you’re hiring a bartender, it is legal to ask if a candidate is older than the minimum age to serve alcohol in the state. 

  3. Be consistent with your interviews. Have a list of vetted questions designed to capture a candidate’s ability to do the job. Then, stick to the script. 

  4. Avoid personal questions. There’s a time and a place to get to know more about people’s non-working lives, but a job interview isn’t it. 


While following these tips doesn’t guarantee you’ll avoid a complaint, it does increase the chance you’ll come out on the winning end – and protect the reputation of your business. 


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