The Forbidden Interview Questions - HR Tips

May 1, 2015

When it comes to interviewing new candidates for your small business, what may seem like a harmless question can get you in a lot of trouble. And while you may have gotten away with certain forbidden questions in the past simply because you didn’t know you shouldn’t ask them, it’s better to play it safe. In this article, we’ll go over today’s HR tip -  six questions you should steer clear of in an interview.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?HR_tips_Interview_questions_not_to_ask

As a small business owner, you probably don’t have a specified HR representative -- it’s likely you, your office manager, or another team member doing the hiring. With only so much experience, it’s important to know your boundaries when representing the HR aspect of your business.

So, what if you don’t know the rules and you slip? What’s the worst that could happen if you were to ask an illegal question in an interview? The answer is quite jarring. According to Business Insider, UCLA researchers said in 2007 and 2008 they found plaintiffs won about half of cases that went to trial in civil court for employment discrimination.

The median jury award was just over $200,000 but went as high as $700,000. In addition, employers also had to pay median legal costs of around $150,000 to defend the cases settle by trial. In short, you don’t want to ask the wrong questions. It could land you in court and potentially cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Related: HR Demands - How to Handle Small Business Human Resources

HR Tips: Avoid These 6 Forbidden Questions

Knowing that the wrong question(s) can turn an interview into a lengthy, expensive litigation, it’s extremely important you understand what questions you can and cannot ask in an interview. So, let’s go over six different questions you shouldn’t ask. Think of them as six HR tips that’ll save you from dangerous waters.

Affiliations. Do not ask about clubs, social organizations, or union membership - do ask about relevant professional associations.

Age. Do not ask a candidate’s age other than, “if hired,” can a candidate produce proof that he or she is 18 years of age.

Criminal record. Do not ask if a candidate has been arrested; you may ask if the candidate has ever been convicted of a crime.

Marital/family status. Questions about marital status and family issues are discouraged except as they relate to job performance.

Personal. Avoid questions related to appearance, home ownership, and personal financial situation.

Race/color. No race-related questions are legal.

Related: Small Business HR Basics

Bonus HR Tip

As a bonus, what do you do if a candidate discloses any of the above information without you asking the question or even alluding to it? The truth is, you can’t stop someone from telling you their age, marital status, race, etc. However, what you can do is not feed the fire, or so to speak.

If a candidate discloses information to you that would be illegal to ask, simply be respectful and move on to your questions. If they persist in talking about a certain matter which you are unable to speak about, kindly tell them that there are certain laws you must follow and topics you cannot discuss.

Like what you’ve read? Check out our eBook, “The Comprehensive Guide To Interviewing For Your Small Business.”


Interviewing can be one of the most exciting aspects of owning your own business. But, at the same time, what may seem like a fun, high-energy interview with a few harmless questions can easily lead to a judge and jury questioning your motives. To be safe, we hope you’ll take our six HR tips and go over them before any interview. It could save you from putting your small business in a dangerous plight.

What questions do you have about questions you can and cannot ask in an interview? Comment below, let’s start a discussion.

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