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How do I deal with illegal interview questions?

Wondering which questions you’ll be asked during your nursing interview? You should expect the usual ones, such as “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and “What’s your greatest weakness?”

But then there are more colorful questions, such as “What animal best describes you?” and “If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you want to have with you?” that you should brace yourself for.

Regardless of what questions get thrown your way, there are a handful of interview questions you should never be asked as a nurse. Be aware — questions about subjects in these categories violate your rights:

Age
National origin
Birthplace
Race
Color
Religion
Disability
Sex
Marital/family status

However, don’t assume an employer’s prying questions are suggestive of discriminatory intentions. Often, a hiring manager is just trying to assess your fit for the job, not trying to illegally discriminate. After all, as a nurse, you’ll often deal with patients from all sorts of backgrounds and beliefs. While you can’t be asked directly about any of these topics, don’t be surprised if you find yourself discussing your family or religion, either. It all depends on how the question is phrased.

While it’s important to protect yourself from illegal nursing interview questions, there are legal alternatives to get the same information out of you. Be prepared and know your options by checking out these six examples of illegal interview questions, and how they can be rephrased to pass the law.


ILLEGAL: “Are you a U.S. citizen?”

LEGAL: “Are you authorized to work in the U.S.?”

The hospital hiring manager isn’t allowed to ask about your national origin, and that includes inquiring about your citizenship status. Touchy immigration issues aside, this question makes unnecessary assumptions based on your looks and racial stereotypes. On the flip side, employers can ask if you’re allowed to work in the U.S. By rephrasing the question, they’re avoiding directly asking if you’re a citizen, green card holder, or on a visa.


ILLEGAL: “How old are you? When did you graduate from college?”

LEGAL: “Are you over the age of 18?”

Whether you’re 18 going on 48 or 60 going on 40, employers are not allowed to discriminate against age (which is what the first question implies). However, when asked differently, the question becomes legal; the legal phrasing implies an age range, not a specific number. After all, the hospital needs to know its nurses are over 18 years of age to work legally in the U.S.


ILLEGAL: “Are you married? How many children do you have? Who do you live with?

LEGAL: “Can you relocate if necessary? Are you willing to travel as a part of this job? Can you work overtime as necessary?”

Your marital and family status is not being interviewed here — you are. Anything about your living situation, roommates, fiancés, spouses, children, etc., is off limits. While employers might simply be trying to gauge how busy you are in your personal life to see if it clashes with your nursing responsibilities, it’s illegal to make a hiring decision based on this factor. As a potential employee, if you can commit to the necessary work hours and agree to the job requirements, your other responsibilities shouldn’t matter. Women should especially be wary of being asked for their maiden name — it’s not required for employers if it isn’t legally your name. (But you can be asked if you’ve ever worked under another name.)

ILLEGAL: “How much do you weigh?”

LEGAL: “Are you comfortable with lifting heavy objects?”

While employers may want to make sure you’re physically able to do the job, asking directly about your weight/height and general health is a major HR no-no. Not to mention potentially embarrassing for you! But rephrasing the question to ask about your ability to perform a specific task, such as lifting a heavy patient, or carrying medical supplies, is fair game.


ILLEGAL: “Do you have any disabilities? Any recent illnesses or operations?”

LEGAL: “Are you able to perform the essential job functions?”

Discriminating against the disabled, whether wheelchair-bound or clinically depressed, is a classic example of illegal hiring practices. But the employer still has a right to make sure you can do the job you’re hired for and rephrasing the question accordingly is within their rights. As a nurse, you’ll be required to be in top shape, both physically and mentally, as part of the job requirements means have the lives of others depend on you.

Legal limits –>


ILLEGAL: “Ever been arrested?”

LEGAL: “Ever been convicted of ___?”

A general question about your (criminal) past is off topic, but a more targeted question regarding questionable behavior — as it relates to health care and nursing — is okay. For example, if you were applying for a job as a magician, it’s appropriate to ask if you’ve ever been convicted of fraud in your line of work.

It’s not so much what the question is asking, but how the question is asked. Federal and state laws prevent employers from asking interviewees about subjects unrelated to the job. However, if you feel you have been asked a question that’s off-limits, you should seek legal counsel. Before you take serious action, take into consideration the nature of the job, the context of the situation, the interviewer’s intent, and of course, the phrasing of the question. Good luck and happy interviewing, nurses!

Related Reads:

How to handle medical issues in an interview

Nonverbal communications: escape the pitfalls

6 interview tips to win the job

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One Response to How do I deal with illegal interview questions?

  1. TheGypsyNurse Caption Contest

    These are some great pointers when it comes to interviewing. Many ‘new to the job market’ can be coerced into answering these questions due to a lack of knowledge that it’s illegal.

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