Applying for a new job can be stressful and time-consuming. It is important to know what to expect so you can be prepared and confident during the application and interview process. The following information explains what kind of questions employers can ask you on an application or in an interview for a new job. Additionally, these questions and answers give information about when and how employers can use drug testing, lie detectors, background checks, and credit checks. Lastly, they discuss illegal discrimination against jobs applicants. If you are faced with a difficult or illegal question while interviewing for a position that you really want, you may choose to answer the question. If this happens, try to determine what information the employer is really trying to get. Often the concern is about availability or things that might be necessary to do the job. So, you may be able to explain why you are qualified and share examples from other jobs or experience of how you can do the job. Nonetheless, if you think you were illegally discriminated against in the job application or interview process, look at our discrimination in employment page for information on filing a claim.
If I meet the qualifications of the job, do they have to offer me an interview?
No. Employers may legally choose whom they extend an interview offer to; however, it is illegal for employers to refuse to interview based on forms of discrimination that are prohibited by law. Thus, it is illegal for an employer to refuse to interview you because of your religion, race, national origin, sex, age, or disability. Nonetheless, employers do not have to tell you why they are choosing not to interview you.
How long should the hiring process take?
According to a recent study by Glassdoor Economic Research, the time it takes to get a job is increasing. On average, in the United States, it took 22.9 days in 2014 to complete the hiring process of an employee. The study notes that the length of the hiring process is most likely affected by additional screening methods being used by employers. These screening methods include phone interviews, one-on-one interviews, group panel interviews, presentations, IQ tests, job skills tests, personality tests, drug tests, and background checks.
In general, what kind of questions can an employer ask me on an employment application or interview?
In general, employers should only ask you questions about bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ) – or questions related to whether you would be able to perform the job and how you will handle certain employment challenges.
Can the potential employer ask me about my age?
Employers cannot base hiring decisions on age. However, if there are laws on youth employment, the employer may ask questions to ensure compliance with those laws, such as “are you at least 18 years old?” Generally, though, employers should not ask questions about your age.
For more information on age discrimination in employment see our age discrimination page.
Can the potential employer ask me about my medications?
Following the BFOQ standard, the potential employer should only ask if you are taking any medications that could affect your ability to perform the job. Therefore, the only medication information you must disclose in the hiring process is information on such medications.
After you accept a job, the employer will have more rights to access your medical record, but once again, only medications or medical conditions that can affect your ability to perform your job can be used as a reason to fire you.
Can the potential employer ask me if I’m in a union?
Employers should not ask you whether you are in a union or your opinion on unions. It is considered an “unfair labor practice by [the] employer” to discriminate in hiring decisions, continued employment or “any term or condition of employment” based on whether an employee is or is not in a union. Ultimately the employees decide whether there is a union and whether they want to be part of it – the employer has no control over this.
Can the potential employer ask me about my religion?
Asking about your religion could be a sign of illegal discrimination by the employer. You may choose not to answer such a question. However, an employer can ask questions regarding scheduling when it is a bona fide occupational qualification – such as “This job requires you to work weekends, is this a problem?”
Can the potential employer ask me about my disability?
It is illegal for an employer to ask you if you have a disability. However, if you have a disability that people can see, or you tell the potential employer that you have a disability or will need an accommodation, the employer can ask you about your disability and what accommodations you will need.
Can the potential employer ask me to demonstrate that I can do the main parts of the job?
Yes. The employer can both ask you whether you can perform each of the job requirements and ask that you demonstrate your ability. Generally, everyone applying for the job should be asked to demonstrate the same job functions. However, if you have a visible disability or have told the potential employer about your disability, they can ask just you to demonstrate your ability to do essential job functions.
Can the potential employer ask me about my childcare arrangements or family plans?
Generally, questions such as: “Are you pregnant?” “Are you married or do you plan to marry?” “How many children do you have?” “Do you have childcare arrangements?” “Does your spouse work?” – Are seen as discriminatory in that they are generally used to discriminate against women. Thus, you do not have to answer these questions – and if you think you were denied the job because of your answers you may have a case for employment discrimination. Remember that questions about scheduling – such as: “This job may require you to work a shift on short notice, is that a problem?” are legal as they relate to an essential part of the job. However, as a practical matter, if you really want the position you are applying for, you may want to answer the interviewer’s questions. In that case, try to look past the sexist nature of the questions and look to see what the employer is really worried about- ie: possible work conflicts. Thus, instead of simply answering these questions with facts about your personal life, also provide evidence of your commitment to your career.
Can the potential employer ask me about my citizenship status?
Potential employers should not ask you about your citizenship status because it tends to show the intent to discriminate. However, remember that asking this question is not itself illegal, but rather discriminating against you based on your answer is. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 12986 (IRCA) makes it illegal for employers to discriminate with respect to hiring, firing, or recruitment or referral for a fee, based on an individual’s citizenship or immigration status. Additionally, the Immigration Nationality Act (INA) forbids employment discrimination based on citizenship status or national origin.
Violations of the INA or IRCA can mean fines and oversight for employers. Recently, the U.S. Justice Department investigated a beef production plant’s hiring practices as to whether the plant was requiring non-citizen employees to show proof of their immigration status, but was not requiring the same of citizen employees. The production plant agreed to a $200,000 settlement before findings were made. Other conditions of the settlement include providing back pay to individuals who lost wages due to the hiring practice, and two years of compliance monitoring.
After an employment offer has been made, an employer can require that you prove your employment eligibility to work in the United States. Once again, this practice should be applied to all employees to truly be free from discrimination.
Can the potential employer ask me about my criminal history?Generally, potential employers should not ask whether you have been arrested but may ask about whether you have ever been convicted of a crime. However, some states limit these questions to certain types of crimes and recent convictions.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from treating people with similar criminal records differently because of their race, national origin, or another Title VII-protected characteristic (which includes color, sex, and religion). Furthermore, Title VII prohibits employers from using policies or practices that screen individuals based on criminal history information if:
- They significantly disadvantage Title VII-protected individuals such as African Americans and Hispanics; AND
- They do not help the employer accurately decide if the person is likely to be a responsible, reliable, or safe employee.
Can a potential employer for a religious institution ask me about my past sexual history?
This issue is heavily debated. Legally, a religious institution is able to ask you about your past sexual history, ethically speaking is another question. The Ministerial Exception is the governing law on this issue which allows religious institutions to violate employment discrimination laws when hiring and firing their ministers. The exemption does not make every religious employee a minister, but it applies to employees with significant religious responsibilities including clergy and religious-school teachers. Thus, these questions are usually justified so long as the job is for a religious position. Religious institutions justify questions about sexual history by arguing that while there is not a direct correlation, there is a strong relationship between child molesters and those who were abused when they were children. Therefore, the religious employers are protecting themselves from potential liability related to potential abuse by employees. The case of Broderick v. King’s Way Assembly of God held the church liable for sexual abuse of a minor child by one of their employees. Thus, to protect themselves from potential liability, religious institutions argue that these questions must be taken into consideration when making hiring decisions.
Can the potential employer require a background check as part of the application process?
Yes. Most employers will use an outside agency to run background checks on applicants, and to do so, they must have your permission as the applicant. However, if you want the job you will likely need to consent to the background check. If an employer does not get your permission before running a background check, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
If an employer uses information from your background check as a reason not to hire you, you have a right to receive a copy of the background check and an opportunity to address the information and contact the agency to correct any mistakes on the report.
Can the potential employer require a credit check as part of the application process?
If a credit check is relevant to the job, the employer may legally require it. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires that the potential employer gets your consent before checking your credit.
Can the potential employer use my credit report as a reason not to hire me?
Yes, if your credit is relevant to the job. If the employer decides not to hire you based on your credit report, they must give you the name, address, and phone number of the company that supplied the credit report or background information; give you a statement that the company that supplied the information didn’t make the decision to take the adverse action and can’t give you any specific reasons for it; and give you a notice of your right to dispute the accuracy or completeness of any information in your report and to get an additional free report from the company that supplied the credit or other background information if you ask for it within 60 days.
Can the potential employer require a physical medical examination during the application/interview process?
No. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) limits when employers can require physical medical examinations to post-offer situations when the physical examination results are related to the employee’s ability to perform the job.
Can the potential employer require me to take a lie detector test?
The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 (EPPA) limits the use of lie detector tests in private employment to security service firms (armored car, alarm, and guard) and of pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors, and dispensers. If you are interviewing with a private employer outside of these exceptions, they may not ask you to take a lie detector test.
Can the potential employer require me to complete a personality and/or honesty test?
Yes, if the tests don’t ask intrusive personal questions — such as questions about your sex life. Additionally, these tests should be given to all applicants instead of a selected few.
Can the potential employer require me to take a drug test?
Most private employers may require pre-employment drug tests; however, they may only be given post job offer. Thus, if you are just applying for a job and they have extended no offer of employment yet, the employer cannot require a drug test at that time.
For more information on drug tests in employment see our drug testing page.
Can the potential employer require me to be fingerprinted as part of the application/interview process?
Generally no. Employers may only require finger printing if they fall into a special legal category such as hospitals, public schools, a job involving firearms, pharmaceuticals, and some public jobs.
Can a potential employer use my presence on social media in the hiring process?
Yes, as long as they are not using the information they find out about you on social media to discriminate on an illegal basis such as age, race, disability, religion, national origin, or gender.
Additionally, depending on your area of employment, a lack of a presence on social media may concern your employer. If you are applying for a job where your duties may include maintaining a social media presence for the company, or one of their products or services, you should explain why you do not engage in social media privately. Perhaps specify that you understand how social media works and are capable of using it as a tool for the company, but simply choose not to maintain a social media presence for your private life.
Can the potential employer ask me my height and weight?
Unless the employee’s height and weight is directly job-related, an employer should not ask you your height and weight. This inquiry tends to disqualify applicants from protected groups so it should not be used unless job-related.
Can the potential employer ask me about my financial information?
Yes. Employers can ask you about personal finances as long as the employer is using the information to help accurately identify responsible and reliable employees, and the same financial information is asked of all applicants of the same position. However, if the use of financial information tends to most often disqualify people of a particular race, color, national origin, religion, or sex it can be deemed illegal by the EEOC. Lastly, if someone’s disability affects his or her personal financial situation, the employer may have to make an exception for the applicant.
Can the potential employer ask me about periods of unemployment?
Yes. Employers can ask you about periods of unemployment if the employer is using the information to help accurately identify responsible and reliable employees, and the effect of screening out applicants based on periods of unemployment is applied to all applicants equally. Additionally, if screening out potential employees based on periods of unemployment tends to most often disqualify people of a particular race, color, national origin, religion, or sex it can be deemed illegal by the EEOC. As with financial information, if the reason for periods of unemployment is related to the applicant’s disability, the employer may have to make an exception for the applicant.
Additionally, if your employment history may give the potential employer the impression that you are a “job-hopper” or often accept a position, just to find a different one, you should explain the reasons for varied employment or perhaps tell them why this position would be different.
What happens if the employer finds out something on my resume wasn’t true?
If the employer finds out that you lied on your resume you will likely be fired. You should not misrepresent yourself when applying for a job. Besides embarrassment and job loss, in some cases, employee misrepresentation can even lead to criminal charges.
What if the employer’s policies and practices tend to disqualify applicants or employees of a particular race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, employees who are pregnant, or employees who are disabled?
If a policy or practice that seems neutral or legal on its face tends to disqualify applicants or employees of a particular race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, employees who are pregnant, or employees who are disabled, the practice may be illegal. The EEOC prohibits the use of such practices when they are not job-related or necessary to the operation of the business.
For example, the EEOC recently found that employment assessments used by Target – designed to be a type of pre-employment personality and honesty test as in question 18 above – tended to screen out applicants for professional positions based on race and gender. Thus, while the test may have seemed neutral on its face, it had an illegal discriminatory result. Target settled the case at $2.8 million.
Where can I get more information about applying and interviewing for jobs?
For more information on this topic see the EEOC page on prohibited practices.