Danielle M. Verderosa

Danielle M. Verderosa

President, HR Allies

The 4 Surprising Interview “Don’ts”

Are you hiring? Your timing is good. The January applicant pool often has the best odds of finding quality (and quantity of) job applicants, as many people spend the holidays resolving to find a better job after the new year.

For small business owners, the hiring process can nerve-wracking. Why? So many business leaders I speak to are aware that there are things they can’t ask candidates about, but they’re not exactly sure what those things are.

In fact, more than one client has told me that they’re scared to ask an applicant anything, for fear that the question could be an accidental landmine of illegal discrimination.

Even if you’re confident in what you are and are not allowed to ask during an interview, I bet you may not know the topics that only became landmines in the last few years!

So just in time for the 2024 hiring season, here is a fresh list of 4 topics to avoid in interviews.

1. Criminal History.

Remember the (recent) days where a job application asked “Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?” A tidal wave of state, county, and local jurisdictions have enacted “Ban the Box” laws, where it’s now illegal to inquire about an applicant’s criminal history before actually making them a (conditional) job offer.

When it comes to legal matters, don’t ask about an applicant’s criminal record unless it directly pertains to the job. Even questions about arrests are off-limits unless directly relevant to the position.

Don’t worry, though – you’re still perfectly allowed to make candidates a job offer “pending a criminal background check” that will allow you to see an applicant’s criminal history before they actually start working for you. There are rules around when you’re able to rescind that job offer based on what you find, though, so consult your HR person or employment attorney before you do anything rash.

2. Prior Salary History.

Not only was asking about an applicant’s previous salaries acceptable – many of us hiring managers used that data to make sure that a candidate was affordably in the salary range we budgeted for. Heck, I’d even used salary history to weed out applicants who earned too little money as being “not quite the caliber ” we’ve budgeted the salary for.

And that’s exactly why it’s no longer legal in many places to ask candidates about their salary history: it’s been deemed to discriminate against people whose low salaries were artificially low based on discriminatory reasons in the first place.

Money matters but has no place in interviews – asking about salary history is a no-go. Instead, let the interview focus on the candidate’s skills and how they can contribute to your business. You can discuss compensation at a later stage in the hiring process.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be up front and transparent with what this position pays – in fact, in many locations, that’s required by law. Publicizing the starting pay – or at least a meaningful range of pay – is still the best way to not waste anyone’s time if a candidate has higher salary requirements.

Then there are other topics that you know are off-limits, but ohhhh they’re even more nuanced and sneaky than you imagined!

3. Families and Personal Affiliations

I’ve found that this is the most difficult no-go topic for well-meaning business owners to avoid. Asking someone about their family is often intended as an ice-breaker question to establish commonalities with the applicant. “Do you have children? *I* have children!”

It might be tempting to ask about an applicant’s family plans to build rapport during an interview, but resist the urge. Questions about marital status, children, or future family intentions are out of bounds too.

The same goes for an applicant’s “affiliations” … to churches, clubs, political parties, or charitable endeavors. You think you’re just trying to get to know the applicant “as a person” and seeking out personal connections that’ll put the applicant at ease … but the answer to those inquiries are fodder for future discrimination lawsuits. If you wind up not hiring the person you’ve just asked to divulge what church they go to, it’s easy for that soured applicant to assume that’s the reason you didn’t hire them.

4. Age

When it comes to age, it’s strictly hands-off during interviews. You know to avoid questions about an applicant’s age, but the trickier part is avoiding any inquiries that might indirectly reveal it. Even innocuous questions like “what year did you graduate high school?” or “what were you doing on September 11?” can seem like sneaky ways to illegally gauge an applicant’s age.


It’s hard not to be apprehensive when you hear horror stories of small businesses being sued by disgruntled candidates who got rejection letters, but I’m here to tell you that as long as you steer clear of a small handful of broad topics, there’s a whole universe of interview questions that are perfectly a-ok.

The key is consistency in your interviews. If you avoid the types of questions I’ve discussed and you treat all your applicants consistently by asking the same set of questions, you’ll ensure a fair and objective evaluation and selection.

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