Male employer interviewing a female job applicant.

Inappropriate Employer Actions Every Job Candidate Should Know About

Last Updated: October 17, 2023

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Key Takeaways:

  • Understanding your rights as a job applicant and employee is crucial so you know when an employer goes too far.
  • Employers can't discriminate because of age, color, disability, gender, nationality, race, religion, pregnancy, sexual orientation, and more.
  • Employers can't violate labor laws, enforce unreasonable non-compete terms, refuse to pay overtime, and more.

Standing up to someone who holds the fate of your employment in their hands can be challenging for even the most confident person. Despite being convinced that your employer is stepping out of line, hesitating to voice your concerns is entirely understandable.
That's why learning your rights when applying for a job is crucial. Doing so can help you know when you're justified in confronting a situation that violates your rights.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws that protect employees and job applicants from discrimination involving:
  • Age
  • Color
  • Disability
  • Genetic information
  • National origin
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sex, including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity
There’s often a fine line between what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Every qualified job candidate deserves a fair shot at landing a position, and no one deserves to have aspects of their life that aren’t relevant to how they’ll perform at work put them at a professional disadvantage.

Discriminative job interview topics

There's plenty of overlap between what's inappropriate in a job interview and the workplace; topics that are off-limits for an employer to ask you about during the hiring process usually remain that way once you have the job as well. These rules aim to minimize the chances of job candidates facing discrimination.


For example, an employer isn't allowed to ask how old you are in a job interview. This includes asking when you graduated high school or postsecondary, attempting to get a general idea of your age. This usually prevents younger job candidates from having an advantage over older ones.
The Federal government implemented the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), making it illegal to create a hostile work environment by discriminating against someone for being older than 40 years old. Some states favor employers, while others have regulations that better protect employees. For example, 14 states also passed state laws prohibiting age discrimination against young employees. These states include: Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Vermont.


Your national origin and ancestry are also sensitive topics that an interviewer needs to avoid. A company can’t refuse to hire you based on your race or where you were born. Even asking about your accent or where your parents are from is prohibited.
Employers can only ask if you can legally work in the country. In addition, employers are recommended to only ask about your national origin for lawful purposes, such as complying with government laws that require reporting information on ethnicity.

Religious or political beliefs

Your religious and political beliefs are more topics you shouldn't have to discuss during the hiring process. In extreme cases, an interviewer might show prejudice towards your views. However, even interviewers who consider themselves accepting of all beliefs might have unconscious biases that factor into their decisions. Once an employer learns information, it can't be unlearned.
For example, an employer can't ask you if you belong to any groups outside of work. This seemingly innocent question can have the unintended consequence of revealing your political or religious beliefs. If the interviewer wants to know if you can meet the job’s scheduling demands, they’ll need to find a different way to go about it.

Gender or sexual identity

You can refuse to answer questions relating to your gender identity and sexual orientation as well. There may be some jobs where the topic is unavoidable because it's directly related to the position, such as interviewing to be a model for a gender-specific clothing store, but the subject is generally deemed irrelevant to the job.
This rule even extends to questions that might humor the job applicant's sexist views. For instance, an interviewer can't ask if you prefer to work with or be supervised by a particular gender.

Homelife, background, and family

Questions that gather information about your marital status, children, and family also need to be avoided by the interviewer during the hiring process. Although these topics might seem like innocent small talk, they can also trigger assumptions about how your home life might affect your work life in the future.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 45% of U.S. employers still don't offer paid maternity leave, and 55% don't offer paid paternity leave. A person wouldn't be blamed for wondering in a job interview if these companies also aren't enthusiastic about hiring someone who will eventually take unpaid leave.
An employer might be inclined to favor a candidate who isn't having children in the future. That's why an interviewer shouldn’t ask you about your marital status, plans relating to children, or even what your spouse does for work. The purpose is to reduce the chances that the employer makes any negative assumptions about how you'll divide your attention between work and personal life if you get the job.

Researching you on social media

Social media capabilities are continuously evolving. As new apps are created, so are new ways for employers to research you before giving you the job.
  • 70% of employers screen candidates during the hiring process using social media
  • 43% of employers check their current employees’ social media
  • 57% have eliminated applicants for a job from contention based on social media
Although simply looking at your social media accounts isn’t illegal, it does come with some risks for an employer if they go about it the wrong way.
Companies can only access the information you've made public, and they have to make sure they aren't observing anything that could inappropriately influence their hiring decision. Any information protected by privacy settings is off-limits. As is any social media research that allows them to draw conclusions about your age, gender, race, or religion.
It's also valuable to know that companies can't ask for login information to your social media accounts in 26 states. This major invasion of privacy might seem like a far-fetched request from an employer these days, but these are relatively new laws triggered by such requests in the early 2010s. Employers can now face up to thousands of dollars in fines for this privacy violation, depending on the state.
If your employer continues to monitor your social media presence after hiring you, some limits on their authority over activity will remain. A company can discipline you if you're using social media to violate its code of conduct, but it can't discipline you for complaining about your job, providing your complaint is not offensive, false, or based on protected characteristics, such as age or race.
The National Labor Relations Act allows employees to discuss their employers publicly, including on social media. This is because social media can be a tool for organizing or unionizing, and employers are prohibited from attempting to stop such acts.

On the job

So you get the job, and now it's time to fill out the paperwork to bring you on board officially. Before signing your job contract, you may have an opportunity to negotiate your salary and some terms of your employment. However, your new employer might also be banking on you not fully understanding your rights as an employee.

Non-Compete Agreements

Signing a Non-Compete Agreement is a relatively standard part of being hired by a new company. By signing the document, you essentially agree not to enter into competition with your current employer for a certain amount of time after you leave the company.
However, the agreement becomes problematic when it unfairly favors the employer with stipulations so broad that it's nearly impossible for you to find a new job. A Non-Compete Agreement might be unenforceable if it's too long in time or too vast in geographical scope. Ideally, you'll be able to avoid the headache altogether if you know the terms they're presenting to you are unreasonable before you sign your contract.

Discussing salaries

Companies are usually quite concerned with confidentiality. For example, once you've negotiated the terms of your Employment Contract, your company might not be too keen on you discussing your new salary with your peers. Prohibiting co-workers from discussing their wages makes it easier for employers to take advantage of their workers, and therefore, it is against the law for most employers to prohibit this. These discussions enable employees to judge a company's wage equality between different demographics.
Like using social media to talk about your job with co-workers, attempts to stifle discussions between co-workers can also be seen as a prohibited attempt to prevent workers from unionizing or organizing.
Another way some employers exploit their workers is by refusing to pay overtime. Doing so is against the law, and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act requires an overtime rate of one-and-a-half times an employee’s regular hourly rate once they exceed 40 hours worked a week. In Alaska, California, and Nevada, the overtime rate starts when workers exceed eight hours daily.

What to do if your employer is discriminating or violating labor laws

Although there are federal and state laws that protect employees from discrimination and illegal labor, these situations, unfortunately, still occur. If you find yourself a victim or witness to discrimination at your job, there are actions you can take.
If you happen to have direct evidence of the discrimination, be sure to save the supporting evidence to use in your claim. As direct evidence is often hard to obtain when it comes to discriminatory actions, you will likely need circumstantial or indirect evidence to help build your case. Small things like keeping a detailed record of when, where, and how the incident took place and who was witness to it can go a long way in ensuring these violations have appropriate consequences.
Contact the U.S. Employment Equal Opportunity Commission if you're facing discrimination related to age, color, disability, equal pay, genetic information, race, pregnancy, retaliation, gender, sexual harassment, or religion. If you're the victim or witness discrimination in the workplace, you need to report the incident within 180 or 300 calendar days, depending on the state.
If your employer violates the Fair Labor Standards Act by violating your right to minimum wage or overtime, contact the U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division (WHD) to file a complaint. The Fair Labor Standards Act contains a two-year statute of limitations, which means that you cannot submit a claim for an incident from more than two years ago. All complaints filed with WHD are free and confidential. In addition, it is illegal for your employer to fire you or discriminate against you for filing a complaint with WHD.
Both departments have toll-free numbers you can call to file a complaint. Also, check your employee handbook, if you have one, or talk to a member of your human resources team that you trust to see if your company has additional advice for handling these situations.
Furthermore, online resources, such as, the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, the U.S. Department of Labor and the EEOC’s websites contain valuable information and resources to help guide you through your claim.
No employee or job applicant should be subject to discrimination, violations of labor laws, or any other harassment for simply trying to support themselves and their family. There are agencies willing and able to help, so you don't have to go through this alone.