Career Tips

Back to the Basics: Your Rights as an Interviewee

By Tiffany Gaston

With the New Year upon us, people often decide that they want to give themselves a fresh start. More often than not, this includes looking for a more fulfilling job or career, and there is nothing wrong with that, you just need to be assured that you know your rights are as an interviewee! We always hear about employer rights, but rarely is there ever any information publicized that will help job candidates realize if they are being asked an illegal question, or what to do in the event that they feel that they are being discriminated against.

Many people do not realize that there are federal and state laws that prohibit employers from asking questions that are not related to the position that they are trying to fill.  Below are a few illegal interview questions that (may or may not be) obviously illegal, and examples of correct alternatives that employers can use to obtain the same information. (Please note this is not intended to be legal advice. If you feel you have been discriminated against, or have questions about your rights, you should seek the help of a qualified legal professional.)

Illegal Question:  How old are you? Legal Alternative: Are you over age 18?

Illegal Question: When is your birthday? Legal Alternative:  Can you, after employment, provide proof of age?

Typically, age based inquiries should be avoided because state law prohibits discrimination against people age 40 and older.

Illegal Question: Are you married? Legal Alternative: Do you have any restrictions on your ability to travel?

Illegal Question: Do you have any children? Legal Alternative:  Do you have responsibilities or commitments that will prevent you from meeting specified work schedules?

The purpose of these “family” inquiries is often to gather information on what some employers believe is a common source of absenteeism and tardiness. Typically, only women are asked these questions, because they are often viewed as the family’s primary care giver. In the event that an employer is concerned about regular work attendance, a better question would be, “Is there anything that would interfere with regular attendance at work,” which avoids all illegal questions, and forcing candidates to reveal too much personal and irrelevant information that could be used against them.

Illegal Question: Are you a US citizen? Or, What is your native language?

Legal Alternative: Are you authorized to work in the United States?

Questions related to a person’s citizenship or country of birth are unlawful and could imply discrimination on the basis of national origin. Employers should not ask applicants to state their national origin, but should ask if they have a legal right to work in America, and explain that verification of that right must be submitted after the decision to hire has been made. To satisfy verification requirements, employers should ask all new hires for documents establishing both identity and work authorization.

Illegal Question: Have you ever been arrested? Legal Alternative: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? (Legal if the crime is reasonably relevant to the job; e.g. embezzlement for a banking job.)

An employer may not refuse to employ a person with a conviction record unless the circumstances of the conviction substantially relate to the circumstances of the job. If a question about a conviction is asked, the employer should add a clarifier such as, “A conviction will not necessarily disqualify you from employment. It will be considered only as it may relate to the job you are seeking”.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces Federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. These laws protect you against employment discrimination when it involves: unfair treatment because of your race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information, even as a job applicant. The website also provides information about filing a compliant if you feel that you have been a victim of discrimination, as well as facts and statistics, frequently asked questions, and details about all of the protected classes.

This is just a sample of the information that is available on this topic. There are also many other illegal interview questions related to military service, race, religion, and disabilities just to name a few. There are a lot of online resources that can help you become knowledgeable about your rights as a prospective candidate during the interview process, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website being your most comprehensive source.

If you are someone who’s New Year’s resolution is to find a new job, or if you are already actively seeking employment, best wishes with all of your future endeavors!


Tiffany Gaston is an Alumni Career Services Assistant for the MSU Alumni Association and is also a graduate student in the Masters in Human Resources and Labor Relations program at MSU. She has already been hired by an amazing company that she looks forward to working with upon her graduation, and hopes to continue to mentor many more Spartans in the future.



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