Paper Trails

What questions should we avoid in an interview?

Working through the hiring process can be a journey filled with potential pitfalls.  This is especially true when it comes to the interview portion of the hiring process. As a small business owner, you know how important it is to find the right person for your team. However, interviewing potential candidates can sometimes lead to tricky territory—asking questions that might seem harmless but are actually off-limits. And these questions to avoid in an interview could get your business in a messy situation.

At Paper Trails, we understand the anxiety and concern that small business owners and HR professional face on a daily basis.  When it comes to wanting to conduct thorough and effective interviews without stepping over legal lines, we are here to help. In this article, we will provide some understanding of the questions to avoid in an interview with a candidate. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to navigate your interviews confidently, ensuring they are fair, compliant, and focused on finding the best candidates for your business. Here we go!

Why some questions must be avoided in an interview

When interviewing candidates, it’s important to remember that your main goal is to assess their ability to perform the job effectively. However, it’s equally crucial to avoid questions that could inadvertently discriminate or invade someone’s privacy. Furthermore, certain topics are protected by law.  Asking questions that relate to these areas during an interview could not only scare off talented candidates but also potentially lead to legal trouble for your business. This includes questions about race, age, gender, religion, marital status, and more.

The legal landscape

In the United States, federal laws set strict guidelines about what can and cannot be asked in a job interview. For example, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits disability related inquires during an interview.  Other questions may be off limits due to other legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects candidates from being asked questions about race during an interview. Another example would be the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protecting potential employees from questions about their age.

Additionally, some states may have other laws that further restrict the questions to avoid in an interview. Maine, for instance, has a whole list of items that are off limits during interviews, including items such as previous workers’ compensation claims or whistleblower scenarios. Understanding these laws is not just about compliance for your business; it’s about ensuring that your hiring practices respect the rights and dignities of all applicants.

Specific examples of questions to avoid in an interview

Knowing exactly which questions to avoid in an interview can help you stay clear of issues. Let’s look at a few examples of questions you should never ask, along with safer alternatives that stick to assessing job-related skills.

National origin and citizenship

Avoid: “Where are you originally from?”
Instead Ask: “Are you authorized to work in this country?”
Asking about a candidate’s national origin can seem like casual conversation, however, this question can be perceived as discriminatory. Instead, focus directly on what matters for the job: their eligibility to work. A simple question about work authorization remains compliant with legal standards and avoids any implication of discrimination.

Health and disability

Avoid: “Do you have any health issues?”
Instead Ask: “Are you able to perform the essential functions of this job with or without reasonable accommodation?”
Questions about health and disability are sensitive. The focus should be on the candidate’s ability to perform job-related tasks. By asking if they can handle the essential functions with or without accommodation, you comply with law and keep the focus on job requirements.


Avoid: “How old are you?”
Instead Ask: “Are you over the age of 18?” (if age is a legal requirement for the job)
Age should never be a factor in deciding a candidate’s suitability for a role, except where it is legally relevant, such as roles that require someone to be over a certain age to comply with labor laws. Asking directly about age can be seen as age discrimination. By limiting your question to whether they meet the specific legal age requirement, you avoid potential legal issues while ensuring compliance.

Family status

Avoid: “Do you plan to have children?”
Instead Ask: Nothing—family planning should not impact hiring decisions.
Questions about family planning are not only invasive but also irrelevant to a candidate’s ability to perform a job. Such inquiries can discriminate based on gender or family status. It’s best to avoid any mention of family planning in interviews to ensure fairness.

Tips for effective interviewing

Creating an interview process that is both effective and compliant doesn’t have to be daunting. Asking the right questions and following the below tips is key to keeping your interviews on the right track:

  • Prepare: Develop a list of job-related questions in advance and use the same set for every candidate.
  • Focus on Skills: Keep the conversation focused on the applicant’s skills, experiences, and qualifications.
  • Educate Yourself and Your Team: Make sure everyone involved in the hiring process understands what should and should not be asked.
  • Document: Keep detailed notes about what was discussed in each interview, focusing on job-related topics.


At Paper Trails, we are passionate about helping small businesses like yours navigate the complexities of HR, payroll, and management without getting overwhelmed. By steering clear of the questions to avoid in an interview, you ensure that your hiring process is not only legal but also fair and effective. Remember, the best interviews focus on finding the right fit for the job based on skills and qualifications, not personal circumstances. Contact our team here for help with your interviewing and HR processes.