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Can They Ask Me That? What Employers Can and Can't Ask in an Interview

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Interviewing for a job can be stressful. You may worry if you'll click with the hiring manager or how you stack up against the candidate pool. What you shouldn't need to worry about are questions that probe into areas of your life or background that are firmly off-limits. It is illegal to discriminate against anyone due to the person's race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information, as outlined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Here's what companies can and can't ask you during the hiring process.

Questions About Gender Roles or Family

It's natural for a hiring manager to need to understand if you can fulfill the roles of the position, especially if there is a lot of travel required, or if you otherwise need to work during nonconventional hours. However, they cannot ask about family obligations to suss out whether they think you'll be committed and available.

Allowed: Will you be able to work during the times outlined in the job description? Are you able to travel for work meetings?

Illegal: Do you have children that prevent you from working when we need you? Is your husband (or spouse) OK with you traveling so frequently for work?

Pregnancy or Family Planning

Employers cannot, under any circumstances, ask if you are pregnant, even if you show up wearing the same maternity dress Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, made famous on the covers of glossy magazines. Nor can they ask if you have children or plan to have kids. As mentioned above, they can only ask if you are able to meet the time and availability requirements outlined in the job description.

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Nationality, Citizenship and Country of Origin

Employers are required to assess if you are legally allowed to work in the U.S. They cannot ask further questions about nationality or birth country, and what they can ask is extremely limited to work authorization.

Allowed: Are you legally authorized to work in the U.S.?

Illegal: Where were you born? Where is your family from? Did your family move here before you were born? What language do you speak at home?

How Old Are You?

Did you know that it's perfectly acceptable and legal to leave a graduation date or course completion date off your resume? Employers can do a check after they extend a job offer to confirm you graduated, but they cannot use that info during the hiring process. Age discrimination in the workplace, for both very junior employees and more seasoned ones, is well documented, but it's not always easy to prove. It's much harder to hide your age, but employers are restricted from asking unless the job duties require you are older than 18 or 21 per law.

Allowed: Are you over 18? Are you over 21? (This question may be asked if you are applying for a job as a bartender or restaurant server, for example, where states have a minimum age requirement for those serving alcohol.)

Illegal: How old are you? What year were you born? What year did you graduate high school?

Salary History

This is a relatively new aspect of the employment process to fall under regulation, and it varies by state, according to a report in the Society for Human Resource Management. Right now, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Oregon and Vermont have statewide laws, while a few other cities have further guidelines. There is no federal law governing salary history. In states and cities with salary disclosure regulations, here are general guidelines.

Allowed: What are your salary expectations for this position?

Illegal: How much did you make at your last job?

Religion or Sexual Orientation

These personal topics are completely off-limits and there are no questions that are acceptable. Employees cannot ask you where you pray, what religion you are, if you are gay or straight, or what your views are on either topic.

About the Author

Kristin Amico is a career and business writer who spent more than a decade managing creative teams at digital agencies. She has written for The Muse, The Independent and USA Today.

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