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Tricky Questions

Are They Allowed To Ask That?

What you can do when a job interview gets too personal.

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— Getty Images/OJO Images

En español | You are in a job interview and things are going wonderfully. Then the interviewer starts asking personal questions. Who takes care of your elderly mother all day? What church do you attend?

You're not sure what these questions have to do with the job you're seeking. Should you respond, and how?

Some questions asked by a prospective employer may actually be illegal under federal discrimination laws. Others can be politely brushed aside. Here's a guide, based on a review of labor laws and interviews with employment attorneys.

RED LIGHTS

These questions are clearly illegal in most interviews.

What disabilities or health concerns do you have?

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), it's illegal to ask whether an applicant is disabled, or about the nature or severity of a disability. It is also illegal to require a medical examination before making a job offer. Questions about your last hospitalization and any psychiatry visits are not allowed, except in rare circumstances for sensitive jobs.

It's OK for the interviewer to ask if you have any health problems or disabilities that will interfere with completing specific duties. For example, an employer may ask about your ability to lift 50 pounds if the job requires it.

After a job offer is made, employers are allowed to discuss disabilities—and accommodations required under the ADA.

How old are you?

This question is not generally legal because of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which protects those age 40 and older. There are exceptions for jobs where legal age limits have validity—airline pilots or federal law enforcement jobs that require physical abilities and skills.

Are you a U.S. citizen?

Only certain high-security jobs provide a reason for checking citizenship. However, employers may ask if you are authorized to work in the United States.

YELLOW LIGHTS

These questions, while usually legal, raise the possibility of bias.

What's your religious background?

If the employer uses religion to screen out applicants, this question could be considered discriminatory under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Have you ever been arrested? What convictions are on your record?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, questions about arrests are out of bounds. That's because arrest rates for nonwhites are more than twice as high as for whites, according to FBI statistics. But questions about criminal convictions—particularly felonies— are more often considered allowable, especially in retail jobs and the child care and security fields.

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