Illegal Interview Questions and How to Respond to Them

When offered an interview for a job, internship, research opportunity, or graduate school program, preparation is often focused on formulating responses to some of the most common interview questions, i.e. tell me about yourself, or talk about a time you worked as part of a team. Questions such as these ask you to talk about your skills and qualifications for the position for which you are interviewing. However, there are certain questions you may be asked in an interview that are illegal, and having knowledge of them and how to respond is just as important as preparing for the questions mentioned above. 

You should not be asked about the following topics, as they are considered discriminatory:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity 
  • Sex
  • Religion
  • National Origin
  • Birthplace
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Marital/Family Status
  • Genetic Information

In some instances where questions regarding these topics are asked, it may be because an employer is trying to make casual conversation (“Did you have a nice Christmas?” could lead to you having to disclose your religion), or they are unaware of state and federal laws prohibiting these questions. Other times, an employer may ask an illegal question as they assess your fit for the position, and you need to figure out what the root of the question is in order to formulate an appropriate response. 

Responding to Illegal Questions

If an employer were to say, “I see you went to Armstrong High School. I used to work there, what year did you graduate? We may have overlapped,” you are indirectly being asked about your age, which can be determined by the year you graduated. In this scenario you could say, “That’s so interesting, small world. What years were you employed there?” In asking the employer to indicate when they worked at Armstrong High School, you can indicate whether you were present at the school in the same year(s) without disclosing your specific age. 

An employer may ask you where you’re from, which could be an innocent question to make conversation, or it could have deeper meaning depending on where you’re at in the interview process. If asked this question, it’s appropriate to answer with where you are currently living. If an employer were to ask you if you are a citizen of the United States (illegal question), you could respond by saying, “I think you’re asking if I’m authorized to work in the United States (legal question), and the answer is, yes, I am.”

Maybe an employer will ask you if there are any disabilities you have that they should know about. In this case, they are likely trying to determine if you can reasonably perform the responsibilities of the job. In this scenario, you can either tell the employer you do not have any disabilities they should know about, especially if you will not need accommodations to complete the work, or you can tell them that you can perform the duties of the job with reasonable accommodations. Asking, “will you be able to perform the responsibilities of this job with reasonable accommodations” is a legal question. 

Questions About Scientific Experience

In addition to the topics mentioned above, as a science student you should also be aware of tactics to answer questions regarding new scientific research, technologies and developments that their current employer may prohibit them from discussing. It is important in these situations to know what you can and cannot talk about regarding your work on specific projects. If you are in a situation where you cannot discuss your work in detail, you likely would have signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). When answering questions about your previous work experience for a classified project, form your response around the skills, techniques, and equipment you used and learned during the experience. These skills and experiences are going to be most interesting to the employer with whom you’re interviewing. 

You should also be aware of any non-compete clauses in your employment contract. Signing this agreement means you agree not to enter markets or professions that are considered to be in direct competition with your current employer. 

If you have questions about anything mentioned in this article, you are welcome to discuss them with a Career Coach. Schedule an appointment via phone (612-624-9717), e-mail (, or the online scheduling system


Written with the assistance of the State of Minnesota, Career Onestop, and The Muse.