Even If It Weren’t Illegal to Ask These Interview Questions, You Shouldn’t Ask Them


Hello recruiting and hiring manager friends. In my latest LinkedIn Talent Blog post, I share why asking personal questions are so bad. What we ask in the interview communicates to the candidate what we value. So even if asking questions around marital status or age or the origin of their surname weren't illegal, they're still bad. They waste time, they don't predict success, they inject bias into the process, and they communicate a lower hiring bar.

This blog post first appeared on LinkedIn's Talent Blog.


What kind of name is Vlastelica? Are you married? How old are you? Do you have kids? What’s your ethnicity? Do you go to church on Sundays?

These are illegal interview questions in the United States and in most progressive countries. Don’t ask them. You know this. And hopefully your hiring managers know this. 

But I can’t tell you how many interviewers sometimes still ask illegal questions. And I’m here to tell you that even if these questions weren’t illegal, they’re terrible questions. Obviously, your race or marital status doesn’t predict success on the job.

So, at a minimum, they waste time in an interview that could be spent on evaluating a candidate’s abilities to do the job.

But there’s another reason — beyond illegal and poor predictors — to avoid these questions.

Our questions communicate what we value 

Candidates are interviewing us as much as we’re interviewing them. They’re looking for signals that this role, this company, this hiring manager, this team culture will be a good match. And top talent? They’re really looking for signals that your hiring manager and their team have high standards, and know how to hire people who are great. Asking these questions communicates a low hiring bar.

If we ask questions like this, even if our intentions aren’t to discriminate based on illegal criteria, we’re communicating that we’re going to use this information to make hiring decisions. An interviewer never gets to take off their interviewer hat and just have casual chat (despite what some of my former companies’ interviewers have thought over the years, lunch interviews are still interviews in the eyes of the law and candidate).

So when we ask those kinds of questions, we’re communicating what we value. When we ask someone if they’re married or if they have kids or how old they are, we’re communicating that we’re going to put weight into their answers.

“But John, that’s not why I’m asking! I’m just curious. I’m just trying to be human, to learn more about them, to make them feel comfortable. I’m not going to discriminate against them illegally with that info, I promise!” 


You don’t get to say that. If you ask about X, then X is part of the info you gathered to make a hiring decision. And rather than communicating that your team makes hiring decisions based on skills and merit, you’re now communicating that you’ll be basing some or all of your decision on this illegal hiring criteria.

But let’s get back to the “I’m just trying to be friendly, to get to know the real person.” I’ve heard this. I was in Amsterdam leading focus groups and asking some hiring managers from other countries about their favorite interview questions. Many highlighted how they started the interview with personal questions to put the candidate at ease, to demonstrate they wanted to have more of a casual conversation, not an interrogation.

I get the intent. But it can still be a bad practice.

Personal questions inject bias into the hiring process

Not only are most of the personal questions illegal, not only are they eating up time we could have used to ask more predictive questions, and not only do they communicate that we’ll be using this illegal info to make our decision, they also create bias.

Hiring managers that tell me they want to make a personal connection, to have more of a conversation, are often the same hiring managers who are very unaware of the affinity bias they’re creating during the interview. If it turns out the hiring manager and candidate have something in common — it could be kids (illegal to ask about) or love of soccer/football (not illegal to ask about, necessarily, but certainly not job related for most companies) or whether they also enjoy traveling home to India for the Diwali holiday — it’s nearly impossible to not develop a strong affinity or likability bias. 

This can give a candidate an extreme advantage versus another candidate, and that advantage would have nothing to do with the candidate’s merit. Affinity bias is so powerful. We tend to hire people we like, and we tend to like people we have something in common with. Airbnb wrote about their shift away from encouraging hiring managers to try to find something in common with candidates in the beginning of their interviews. Initially, they thought it’d be a good way to improve candidate experience, but they ultimately found it created too much affinity bias, so they stopped doing that.

And then the opposite is true as well. If it turns out we have almost nothing in common with a candidate — based on personal questions — we may now tell the rest of the interviewing team something like, “I just found it hard to make a connection with them” or “I’m not sure they’d be a good culture fit” or “They seemed really formal, too formal for our team” or “I found it hard to get them to open up for most of the interview.” I’ve heard all of those reasons used in hiring decision meetings to pass on a candidate. Ugh!

Fairness should be a core goal when interviewing. And fairness starts with ensuring each interviewer understands the consequences of asking illegal or personal or non-job related questions. It can be illegal, it can waste valuable time, it can communicate low standards to our candidates, and it can create terrible affinity bias. The chances of missing out on good talent — false negative hiring decisions — goes up so much when we ask these kinds of questions and use the candidate’s responses to shape the rest of our interview and our hire or no-hire hiring recommendation.

What can we do? Send this article to your hiring managers and interviewers. And make sure — during your hiring manager and interview training — you highlight why these questions are bad. Go beyond just the illegal nature of most of these questions and focus on the other problems they create. 

And then get prescriptive. Tell your hiring teams to never ask these kinds of questions, even if they’re asking them to be nice or, in their mind, using them to create a more personalized candidate experience.


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