I got a call from a recruiter the other day. His offer wasn’t very exciting, but I told him to keep in touch. It would’ve been a forgettable call… except that he then asked a series of really unusual questions.
“Can I ask a few more questions to complete your file?” he said.
“You’re a U.S. citizen, right?”
I answered immediately, automatically. But as the “yep” escaped my mouth, a little warning light started flashing in the back of my brain.
“And your date of birth?”
I paused. There are some questions you should never be asked in an interview setting. Your nationality is one. Your age is another. He’d asked two of these questions in a row. What’s going on here?
I decided to give my birthdate, partially because I’m the exceedingly neutral age of 32, and partially because the truth is the easiest answer to give when caught off-guard. But then his last question was…
“Do you feel comfortable giving me the last four digits of your social security number?”
WOAH. What what whaaaat?! I don’t know the dude from a hole in the ground! My birthdate and my social?! What’s he gonna want next—my credit card number? A copy of my house keys?? Shit no!
I thanked him for his time and asked him not to contact me again.
I knew the job offer was legit; I’d had other recruiters contact me about it as well. But the high number of sensitive questions betrayed a basic lack of training and discretion. It was just too many red flags.
Even though I know a lot of this stuff cold, I still wasn’t prepared for how to handle them when they came up in the moment. But you will do better than me! Today I’ll share with you ten bad questions to watch out for. We want you to be ready to identify and avoid sketchy workplaces. Luckily, many seem willing to make their sketchiness known before they even hire you!
Illegal questions versus legally stupid questions
I often hear people say “They’re not allowed to ask that, that question is illegal!”
But that’s not actually the case. This is America! We’ve got freeze peach! Very few questions are outright illegal to ask. It’s mostly stuff that sounds like Valentine’s Day cards from psychopaths.
- “Would you be my hitman?”
- “Care to join me for a wire fraud?”
- “Fine day to rob a bank together, wouldn’t you say?”
I mean, I’m not a lawyer. But you can trust me—I am fully credentialed by the University of Google.
“Although state and federal equal opportunity laws do not clearly forbid employers from making pre-employment inquiries that relate to, or disproportionately screen out members based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, or age, such inquiries may be used as evidence of an employer’s intent to discriminate unless the questions asked can be justified by some business purpose.”–U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Comission
So it isn’t illegal to ask these questions. It’s just legally stupid—especially in the hiring stage. It could be used as a key piece of evidence in an anti-discrimination suit. So most employers (especially big companies with comprehensive training and anti-discrimination policies) will avoid them like the plague.
1. “Are you a U.S. citizen?”
Lots of people might find this one surprising. But yes, nationality is a protected class!
You may see subtler versions of this question, especially if you have an unusual name or accent. “Were you born here?” “What a lovely accent, where is it from?” “Is English your first language?” God help me, you might even hear something like “Are you legal?” Which… shudder.
Your immigration status and nationality are not relevant to your ability to do a job. What they can ask is if you are “authorized to work in the United States.” This careful language cuts to the only portion that’s relevant to an employer. Although the topic may merit deeper conversation if the role requires international travel, government clearances, or other unusual complexities.
2. “How old are you?”
Your employer will likely ask for your birthdate at some point for benign reasons—as part of a background check, or signing up for health insurance, or creating multi-factor authentication logins, or to make sure there’s a store-bought cake waiting for you on your birthday. (To which I say: could you just not? Given the choice between an office birthday and a dental cleaning, I’d choose that minty fresh feeling every time!)
But they shouldn’t ask in the initial interview process. More subtle versions, like “What year did you graduate high school?” are equally bad.
Age is a protected class—at least partially. An employer is allowed to verify that you’re over 18, but individuals over 40 are protected from age discrimination by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Sadly, there are no similar protections for folks younger than 40—something we plan to talk about more in the future.
3. “Are you single?”
Marital status is protected. So whether you’re single, engaged, married, separated, divorced, or widowed, you’re covered.
Also, my lord! Anyone who asks you about this is guaranteed to be a creeper!
4. “Do you have kids?”
Companies hate maternity leave. It’s a nightmare for them. It takes a key staff member out of play for weeks or months. (Or, you know, forever! A third of women who take maternity leave won’t return to the workplace.) They have to hire an expensive temp, or stress out the rest of their staff by spreading around the extra work. It happened with Piggy’s boss, and it threw her team into turmoil for a year.
… Not that we’re jumping to dab the corners of their eyes. Boo fucking hoo! It’s a small price to pay for the continuation of the species!
Before this protection existed, companies fired pregnant employees as part of the normal course of business. And it still goes on today, especially among low wage workers and women of color. An unscrupulous hiring manager will absolutely listen for context clues that you might be nearing a “starting a family” stage of life. Got married last year? Had fun on your honeymoon? Just closed on a three-bedroom home? I see…
Additionally, some jerks automatically assume parents are less reliable, less flexible in their schedules, and less invested in their careers. Other jerks assume childless adults can climb any mountain and cross any ocean because they don’t have children. All answers are traps! That’s because all humans are imperfect slaves to productivityyy!
5. “What’s your religion?”
In college, I remember hustling to put my B&H orders in on time because the company is owned and largely staffed by observant Hasidic Jews. All the media students knew that they would take no orders nor ship them between sundown on Friday and Saturday, or on special holidays.
And that’s fine! Businesses are private entities; they can set whatever schedule they like. There are lots of Christian-affiliated businesses that close on Sundays, such as Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby. I’m pro-days-off regardless of the reason.
Your availability to work within their customary hours is relevant and open for questions. But your personal religious beliefs are not.
Be vigilant if you join a company with explicit or implicit religious affiliation. Employees have brought lawsuits against all three of the examples I just gave (B&H, Chick-fil-A, and Hobby Lobby) for discriminatory practices. Aaaaaand I don’t think that’s an accident! Employment law and the Old Testament ain’t always on the same page.
6. “Are you in good health?”
Employers may ask if you are able to perform essential job functions: lift X number of pounds, stand for at least X minutes, drive this kind of vehicle…
But they may not fish for general information about your health or disability status. Job applicants don’t have to disclose a disability in the interview process. Even if they need reasonable accommodations, they don’t have to say a word until the time that they actually need those accommodations.
Sometimes I hear advice that goes like this:
“[Assistant secretary for disability employment policy at the U.S. Department of Labor Roy Grizzard] does strongly urge job seekers to be upfront with employers about disabilities that could affect the job. ‘Legally, you don’t have to, but most employers would appreciate the openness, and it would help create a positive working relationship,’ he says.”–When to Reveal a Disability During Your Job Hunt
Respect to this dude and all, but I would never advise someone to do this!
It puts you at serious risk for discrimination in order to extend a human courtesy to a nonhuman entity who would never, ever reciprocate.
Story time: I took a job once at a company that was about to be in foundation-shaking, layoff-triggering legal trouble. Was the company “upfront” about this fact, knowing I would “appreciate the openness”? HA! Fuck no! The company didn’t have to tell me, so they didn’t. Because companies don’t ever do anything unless it’s in their best interests.
I had a coworker die a couple weeks ago. Y’all think I’m joking? Literally not even a moment of silence in this bitch.— 💎Crazy Goddess 💎 (@HighHeelEsquire) January 23, 2020
Take your sick days. And every day of vacation leave (and more if you can get away with it)
If there’s one lesson I can impart to every BGR reader, it would be this: your job is not your life, your boss is not your friend, and your coworkers are not your family. Don’t give these institutions undue loyalty, courtesy, or respect. They are structurally designed and continuously incentivized to exploit you.
… Crap. I already used the “Marxism intensifies” gif.
7. “Have you ever used illegal drugs?”
Addiction is a physical and mental health challenge. That’s why it’s protected, like any other health issue.
Your employer doesn’t get to have an opinion over your past use of legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco. They also shouldn’t ask if you have a history of using illegal drugs—though they may ask if you’re currently using them, and test your veracity by asking your pee about it. And some jobs legally require drug tests.
I can’t believe I have to say this, but… don’t narc on yourself.
Don’t winkingly acknowledge your use of weed—even in a state where it’s legal and socially accepted, even if the workplace seems chill. It’s not worth the risk. If it doesn’t impact your ability to safely do your job, keep your recreational activities to yourself.
8. “Have you ever been arrested?”
This one is complicated. Regulations vary considerably from state to state, charge to charge, and job to job. But past criminal activity can be both fairly disqualifying and unfairly discriminatory.
Generally, the EEOC instructs employers to consider the individual applicant’s circumstances, rather than disqualifying everyone with a criminal record. To avoid discrimination, employers should consider (1) the nature and seriousness of the offense, (2) how much time has passed since the offense, and (3) the nature of the job they’re applying for. Can’t have Hamburglars working security at the hamburger factory, unless perhaps the Hamburglarizing was twenty years ago and they’ve successfully completed a year of Sandwich Thieves Anonymous.
If you were never convicted of the crime, or have had your record sealed or expunged, you can probably pretend the offenses never happened.
9. “What was the nature of your military discharge?”
Civilians operate under the mistaken belief that there are only two answers to this question: honorably discharged and dishonorably discharged.
Yet there is no one-size-fits-all reason for people to leave the military. The details could butt up against other protected information, such as health, disability, and criminal activity. So as with the others, the question should only be asked as it directly pertains to the nature of the new job.
10. “Do you have debt?”
Dave Ramsay is a pretty famous dude in the personal finance space. His advice is often good. He has helped a lot of people. (Do you sense a common conjunction that isn’t the word “and” approaching? Because you’re right!)
BUT it sure sounds like he’s a real fucking whackjob as a boss! I’ve read accounts of his cult-like company running credit checks on potential new hires, inviting their spouses to the job interview, and expecting new employees to publicly cut up their credit cards on their first day. To which we say: fUcKiNg WhAt!
Federal law allows potential employers to collect modified credit reports, though ten states have outlawed the practice. It’s terribly invasive, old-fashioned, and potentially discriminatory. Unless you are applying for a job handling large sums of money, I would consider any interest in your personal finances disqualifyingly bizarre.
Bonus: Fishy or phishy?
In the example I mentioned at the top of the article, I stopped cold when the interviewer asked me for part of my social security number.
If someone cold-contacts you about an amazing job interview opportunity, don’t let your excitement blind you. Are you sure the person you’re speaking to is who they say they are? Scammers, identity thieves, and stalkers could use fake recruiting calls to get your full name, birthdate, address, social security number, current employer, and other sensitive information.
Employers may want this information eventually, but in an initial interview? Never.
How to respond to bad questions
So you’re in an interview and your interviewer asks one of these questions. There are a few things that could be happening.
- It’s possible but unlikely that your interviewer is actively trying to discriminate against you.
- It’s possible but unlikely that there’s a real business need for it. When casting a movie, a casting director could reasonably ask an actor for their gender, age, ethnicity, or other protected information for purposes of making sure they fit the role. (Unless that actor is Scarlett Johansson HEYO!)
- It’s possible and kinda likely that the company is misinformed about best practices, or doesn’t train its interviewers well, or is too small to have at least one staff member dedicated to HR functions.
- It’s possible and extremely likely that your interviewer is just a person trying to make conversation.
To know how to react, you have to know your rights and read the situation.
Imagine you’re a nineteen-year-old woman who’s interviewing for a retail position. The store manager motions for you to follow him. As you walk through the store, you notice that all of his employees seem to be pretty young women. He takes you to a cramped and dimly lit back room. When you take off your coat, he stares down at your body. Then he asks, “Do you have a family? A boyfriend, husband, kids…?”
Now imagine you’re a thirty-five-year-old woman interviewing for a white-collar position. It’s a scheduled interview with four department heads you’d be working closely with. You’re chatting while you wait for one more person to arrive. One of them mentions a funny thing her toddler did last night, and another one laughs and says his kids used to do the same thing when they were that age. Then he turns to you and he asks, “Do you have a family? A boyfriend, husband, kids…?”
Context is everything. You need to read the room and trust your instincts.
Keep this question at the ready, with an earnestly curious tone of voice: “Why do you need to know that?” It forces your interviewer to connect the question to the particulars of the job while still leaving them an “out” to admit that, in fact, they don’t need to know, and were merely curious.
Assume they already know
Interviewers are supposed to ask neutral questions. But sometimes they don’t need to ask anything to glean protected information from you.
A person in a wheelchair can’t disguise the fact that they are disabled. Most interviewers can probably guess the religion of a person wearing a dastar. Your interviewer has a lifetime of experience guessing a person’s gender based on contextual clues—and an ambiguous appearance can be its own kind of announcement.
And that’s just reality, man. We can’t ever be perfectly neutral.
Sometimes I’ve heard people be advised not to put identifying protected characteristics on their resumes. For example, say you volunteered for the Jamaican American Student Association. “No, your interviewer could guess you’re Jamaican—don’t put it on your resume!”
I think this is bad advice.
Reducing your own qualifications and experiences is rarely the right move. Doubly so in the service of appeasing a hypothetical person who is keenly aware of race/nationality, but cannot tell you are Jamaican from your name, your voice, your body, your clothing, or your conversation when you show up to an in-person interview.
And as we’ve said before: unless you are in a truly perilous situation, it’s not worth it to censor yourself to appeal to toxic employers. Be your authentic self; let the scum do you the favor of avoiding you.