Common Illegal Interview Questions Asked in California

Person having interview over web conference

Have you ever had something like this happen to you? You are in the middle of an interview in which everything is going nicely, and you and your future boss are getting along well. Then a question is thrown on you and you’re taken back for a few seconds before you realize what has happened. You wonder to yourself; did they just ask that question?

In this article, we will go through the top five illegal interview questions that people get asked. But first, let’s take a closer look at what the law says about asking illegal interview questions.

Employers are prohibited from discriminating against applicants or workers under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which forbids discrimination on the following grounds:

  • race,
  • religious creed,
  • color,
  • national origin,
  • ancestry,
  • physical disability (including HIV-positive status) or mental disability,
  • medical condition (specifically cancer-related conditions and genetic characteristics),
  • marital status,
  • sex (including pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, and gender identity),
  • age (40 years and older),
  • or sexual orientation.

In addition, it includes discrimination based on a belief that a person is a member of a protected class or is associated with a person who is, or is perceived to be, a member of a protected class (CA Gov. Code Sec. 12940 et seq.).

In particular, the FEHA prohibits employers from asking questions about these characteristics on an application form or during a job interview unless the characteristic is relevant to the applicant’s ability to perform the job’s requirements. Employers with five or more workers are subject to the FEHA’s requirements.

Physical fitness-related questions are allowed provided they are directly relevant to and pertinent to the job description. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) also forbids any non-related questions, such as what your parents do, if you rent or own a house, or whether you have any plans to get married in the near future. This rule assures that an employer’s recruiting decisions are based on your skills, attitude, and ability to perform the duties of the position.

With our newfound knowledge of the law in hand, let’s take a look at the top five illegal interview questions that people are often asked.

1. Where are you originally from?

Even if your place of origin has no influence on your ability to perform the job, an interviewer may use a question like this to try to validate his or her preconceptions about your ability to perform the job.

The proper approach to ask the question is to inquire as to whether or not a job candidate is legally permitted to work in the United States. Other inquiries that are similar but should be avoided and not answered include:

  • Are you a U.S. citizen?
  • Where did you live while you were growing up?

2. Do you go to church?

This and other related questions, such as “What holidays do you celebrate?” and “What is your religious affiliation?” are used to pry into your religion or how and where you worship, without you even knowing it. In most cases, you shouldn’t have to answer these questions unless you’re looking for work with a church or other faith-based organization, which may make hiring decisions based on your religion.

3. When did you graduate from high school (or college)?

The majority of interviewers are aware that they should avoid asking questions about someone’s age since doing so puts them at risk of being accused of age discrimination. The presence of questions that will provide them with a hint regarding a candidate’s birth date, however, is nevertheless rather prevalent. Other questions you should never ask, or answer include:

  • Is the age gap between you and your potential coworkers a concern?
  • How long do you intend to work before retiring?

4. How would you handle managing a team of all men?

Gender discriminatory questions are common, however no questions concerning gender should be asked during the interview process. If an interviewer is concerned about an applicant’s ability to perform work responsibilities, he or she should ask the candidate directly about those responsibilities. For an example, “This job requires you to travel 50% of the time. Is there anything that would prohibit you from doing so?” Other related questions to avoid are:

  • What type of childcare arrangements do you have?
  • What do you plan to do if you become pregnant?

5. Are you married?

When the interview is going well, an interviewer may appear to be making pleasant informal chat, but fishing for information about a candidate’s family plans (marriage, engagement, and child planning) is prohibited and discriminatory. This might also be a subtle approach to learn about someone’s sexual orientation, which is another protected class, and job applicants are not required to provide personal information. Avoid these related questions:

  • Are you able to make childcare arrangements while working?
  • How old are your kids?
  • Can you tell me what your wife does for a living?

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