The National Football League (NFL) Scouting Combine has been called one of the most intense job interviews there is. The annual event, which brings together the top college football prospects in the country, gives NFL teams the chance to test the physical, mental and psychological abilities of potential draft picks. 

Although attention is mostly paid to physically measurable skills, the interview process has made waves this year and in the past, mainly for inappropriate questions asked by NFL teams. This year, Nick Kasa, a tight end for the University of Colorado, said in a radio interview with an ESPN affiliate that one of the teams at the Combine asked him, "Do you like girls?"

Aside from being highly inappropriate and irrelevant, the question is also illegal to ask in a job interview. The issue prompted this response from the NFL: 

"It is league policy to neither consider nor inquire about sexual orientation in the hiring process," the league said in a statement. "In addition, there are specific protections in our collective bargaining agreement with the players that prohibit discrimination against any player, including on the basis of sexual orientation."

The whole situation shines a light on the issue of illegal interview questions. However, companies and hiring managers can protect themselves by following several simple steps and guidelines.      

"It is illegal for an employer to ask applicants about information relating to a protected category," said Sharon Stiller, a partner and director of the employment law practice at Abrams, Fensterman, Fensterman, Eisman, Formato, Ferrara and Einiger. "Protected categories of applicants/employees receive special protection under the laws, usually because of a history of discrimination, and include categories such as age, race, creed, color, religion, national origin, disability, gender [and] genetic characteristics.

"And then there are other categories protected under state law, such as sexual orientation and marital status. Asking for information about whether someone fits within these categories suggests that a hiring decision is being made based on that category."

Amanda Haddaway, a career and human resources expert and author of "Interviewer Success: Become a Great Interviewer in Less Than One Hour" (CreateSpace Independent Publishing 2013) also offers the following advice about navigating legal and illegal questions in an interview:

Family status

  • Legal question: Do you have any responsibilities that conflict with attendance or travel requirements?
  • Why this question is legal: The position requires the person filling the job to have regular attendance and the ability to travel. This question pertains to the job duties.
  • Discriminatory questions: Are you married? Do you have children? Are you pregnant?
  • Why these questions are illegal: The questions have no bearing on whether or not the person can perform the job.

Race
  • Legal question: None.
  • Discriminatory question: What is your race?
  • Why this question is illegal: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) protects people from discrimination based on race. A person’s race does not affect his or her ability to do a job.

Religion:
  • Legal question: None.
  • Discriminatory questions: What church do you attend? What is your religion?
  • Why these questions are illegal: The EEOC protects people from discrimination based on religion. A person’s religion does not affect his or her ability to do a job.

Residence
  • Legal question: What is your address?
  • Why this question is legal: Prospective employers may ask a candidate’s address to correspond with the person during the interviewing process.
  • Illegal questions: Do you own your home? Do you rent your home? Who lives with you?
  • Why these questions are illegal: A person’s residence has no bearing on whether or not he or she will be a good employee.

Gender
  • Legal question: None.
  • Discriminatory question: Are you male or female?
  • Why this question is illegal: The EEOC protects people from discrimination based on gender. A person’s gender does not affect his or her ability to do a job.

Age
  • Legal question: If you are hired, can you provide proof that you are at least 18?
  • Why this question is legal: Some employers are only able to hire candidates who are legally adults. If this does not apply to your workplace, however, you shouldn’t ask this question.
  • Discriminatory questions: How old are you? When is your birth date?
  • Why these questions are illegal: The EEOC protects people from discrimination based on age. A person’s age does not affect his or her ability to do a job.
Other experts say hiring managers and companies can protect themselves in the hiring process by setting up a structured, standard interview process.   

"I stress to hiring managers that they should have prepared questions because you need to ask the same questions of all your interviewees or you could face discrimination allegations," said Leslye Schumacher, talent analyst and management consultant at TalentQ Consulting. "Also, even if an interviewee volunteers information that you are not allowed to ask about, that does not mean all bets are off and [that] you can ask follow-up questions in that area."

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