You may think a question about whether or not you have kids is totally innocuous small talk, but it's one of many questions best left unanswered during a job interview.
While very few specific interview questions are by themselves illegal to ask, Laura Davis, an associate professor with the Department of Finance and Legal Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, explains in the Journal of Employment and Labor Law that some questions may be used as evidence of discrimination and, so, are ill-advised for interviewers to ask.
"Since it is reasonable to assume that all questions in an interview are asked for some purpose and that hiring decisions are made on the basis of the answers given, any question asked during the interview can be used as circumstantial evidence of a prohibited discriminatory motive," she says.
In the US, certain personal characteristics are part of a protected class and can't be targeted for discrimination thanks to certain federal or state antidiscrimination laws.
"Even without any intentional ill will, employers who have knowledge concerning the protected class status of applicants may make biased assumptions about their capabilities or work habits," Davis says.
That's why, to protect against claims of discrimination, hiring managers are frequently advised to steer clear of asking certain questions altogether and stick to questions that focus on the specific criteria needed for a candidate to perform the job.
Unfortunately, not all hiring managers are informed about discrimination laws. So a good rule of thumb for job candidates, then, is to sidestep any questions that are blatantly irrelevant to the role you're interviewing for and specifically to avoid answering the following questions directly:
'What does your spouse do?'
This question may seem like harmless small talk, but it's not as innocuous as you might think.
Some states, like New York, explicitly ban employers from discriminating against applicants based on their marital status.
And while Title VII, the portion of the federal Civil Rights Act that prohibits employment discrimination, does not bar employers from asking for information relating to protected-class status, it does ban discriminatory employment decisions made on the basis of this information.
Because of this, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) -; which brings lawsuits against employers on behalf of workers -; advises employers against asking about marital status because these questions are often used to discriminate against female employees (and discriminating against women is illegal).
Other questions that could be used to discriminate that you should avoid answering include:
"Are you married?"
"Do you plan to get married?"
"What's your spouse's name?"
'Are you pregnant?'
According to the EEOC, questions about the number of kids someone has are also frequently used to discriminate against female employees, which is illegal.
That's why it's inadvisable to answer other questions like:
"How many kids do you have?"
"How old are your kids?"
"Do you plan to have kids?"
"What are your child-care arrangements?"
'Do you have a disability that would interfere with your ability to perform the job?'
While this may seem like a pertinent question, the American Disabilities Act bars employers from asking interview questions that are likely to reveal the existence of a disability before making a job offer.
Other questions along these lines that you should avoid answering before you're offered a job could include:
"Do you have a heart condition?"
"Do you have asthma or any other difficulties breathing?"
"How many days were you sick last year?"
"Have you ever filed for workers' compensation? Have you ever been injured on the job?"
"Have you ever been treated for mental-health problems?"
"What prescription drugs are you currently taking?"
'Have you ever been arrested?'
Some states explicitly prohibit employers from asking about applicants' criminal history unless the crime is directly related to the job they are interviewing for.
In states where the question is not explicitly prohibited, questions about arrests and convictions can be unlawful if they disproportionately eliminate minority applicants and the practice is unrelated to successful job performance, according to the EEOC.
'What year did you graduate?'
This question is not as harmless as you might think, as it could be used to determine your age.
Some states explicitly ban asking applicants about their age, and in states that don't, the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967prohibits employers from age-based discrimination toward anyone over the age of 40, and asking about someone's age may give the impression of discrimination.
'Are you in a union?'
The National Labor Relations Act was created to protect workers' right to join unions and to prohibit employers from unfairly discouraging workers from joining a union or negotiating a union contract, Davis explains.
While questioning a job applicant about union membership during a job interview may not be a violation of the law, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that this combined with a printed application form that also inquires about union membership is "inherently" coercive and a violation.
'Could you take this genetic test?'
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 makes it illegal to discriminate against employees or job applicants because of genetic information and prohibits employers from requesting genetic information from job applicants or about a family member.
'Where is your name from?'
While this question may seem harmless, it could be used as circumstantial evidence of racial discrimination.
Discrimination based on national origin, race, or color is illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And discrimination with respect to hiring, firing, or recruitment based on an individual's citizenship or immigration status is outlawed by the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
Similarly, although a question like, "What languages do you speak?" could be useful in a job interview, "What's your first language?" could also be used to determine a candidate's nation of origin.
'What days do you worship?'
Maybe the hiring manager wants to know what days you are available to work, but a question like this could also be used to discriminate.
Asking about religion can get employers in hot water because religious discrimination is illegal in the US thanks to the Civil Rights Act, and even though the federal government doesn't specifically forbid questions about religion, hiring managers are advised to avoid them because they could be used as evidence of intent to discriminate.
Other questions you should avoid answering include:
"What's your religious affiliation?"
"Do you believe in God?"
"Where do you worship?"
"What religious holidays do you celebrate?"
"Can I get a reference from your rabbi?"
The exception to the rule is religious organizations. According to the EEOC, an employer whose purpose and character is primarily religious is permitted to lean towards hiring persons of the same religion.
'Can you take this polygraph test?'
The federal Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 prohibits most private employers from requiring or requesting any employee or job applicant to take a lie-detector test. It also bars employers from discharging, disciplining, or discriminating against an employee or job applicant for refusing to take such a test.
'How much do you currently make?'
Massachusetts recently passed an equal-pay law that prohibits employers from asking about salary histories until they make a job offer that includes compensation, unless the applicants voluntarily provide the information, ThinkProgress reported.
If you're interviewing in any state other than Massachusetts and a hiring manager asks about your salary history, bestselling personal-finance writer Ramit Sethi recommends responding with something along the lines of, "You know what, I'm happy to discuss money down the road, but right now I'm just trying to see if there's a good fit for both of us. I'm sure you're trying to do the same thing."
Aaron Taube contributed to an earlier version of this article.