I Have a Restaurant Job Interview - What are They Not Allowed To Ask?

Posted on 07 Nov 2015 21:23

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Someone who has been working in the restaurant industry will tell you that restaurants are not always a good place to work. In fact, there is a reason that there is a continual labor shortage in food service, even though the restaurant industry is one of the largest private sector employers. The reason is that little investment is put into employee working conditions, comfort, relations, and training.

The grueling, high-pressure work, long hours including weekends and nights, and lack of support and proper training causes many restaurant employees to not only not serve customers well, but to leave within a month or two. This, in turn, causes restaurant owners or managers to feel that just about anybody they hire will just leave, so why bother training them? At the same time, the interview process, as a result can be less than professional, since it is easy for an interviewer to fall into a trap of thinking that if they just ask enough questions and find out whether the interviewee is a "good candidate" they will end up with a worker who will stick around, despite the crappy conditions. Or, they may even be seeking out those that are desperate to have a job!

At the same time, most people who start restaurants really know nothing about the hiring process, or the laws governing it. Yes, most! Being asked seemingly inappropriate questions before leads to a common question: What can they ask me in the restaurant job interview, and what are they not allowed to ask me?

Before we get into this I think it is important to point out that this is just general information. Do not think of it as a substitute for legal advice, and know that local and state laws may vary. If you feel you have been asked inappropriate questions or that you were not hired for improper reasons, even if you don't find the reasons here, you should seek out further information and seek legal counsel, if needed. Of course, the same thing goes for restaurant owners or managers who have been accused of wrong actions during the interview process. The local labor board can probably give advice.

Let's start with the obvious:

Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 - Race, Color, Religion, Age, Sex, or National Origin

According to the Federal Civil Rights Act, you, as a job applicant must be treated fairly and on an equal basis, regardless of race, color, religious affiliation, age, sex, or national origin.

A potential employer cannot ask certain questions of you, in this regard. Let's say it is unclear what ethnicity you are. They cannot dig and ask you questions about this.

And if they do, it can have no bearing whatsoever on the outcome. The same goes for religion, or what country you are from, etc.

"So, what country did you grow up in," may seem like casual conversation and just "making friends." In an interview, it is prohibited.

Be on guard for sneaky questions regarding any of these matters.

"Hey, haven't I seen you at Trinity Methodist?" They are trying to find out your religion, and are hoping you'll tell them what church you go to.

Age Related Questions

Age is a tricky one in the restaurant and bar industry. After all, you cannot hire someone who is younger than 18 if your establishment serves alcohol. Many young people think that they cannot be asked their age!

This is not so. It is perfectly permissible for an interviewer to ask whether you are 18 or older. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) only forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or over. It does not protect those younger than 40.

Here is something they may surprise you. According to Federal Law, it is NOT illegal for a restaurant, or any other employer, to choose an older worker over a younger one. In other words, if another applicant is older than you, they can be chosen on that basis. It is permissible, in other words, for an employer to prefer an older applicant. In this case, it doesn't matter if the younger applicant is 22 and the older one is 45, or if the younger one is 40 and the older is 50. See more.

Some states may actually have laws that do protect younger applicants from discrimination.

Sometimes there are reasons an employer needs to know your true age. Perhaps there is a pension plan. In this case, remember that an employer needs to know your age for this purpose, not an interviewer. They can find out your exact age after you are hired if needed for such purposes.

Drugs and Smoking

Sorry but you are not protected against questions regarding drug use or smoking. Not only can a potential employer ask whether you smoke or use recreational drugs, they can stipulate that you agree to be subject to their drug and smoking policies, including drug screening processes.

Credit Rating

I have actually been asked about my credit in an interview! Since asking for credit ratings or credit references have been deemed discriminatory against minorities and women, this is a question that should not be asked.

Home Ownership

Similar to credit, above, home ownership questions have been deemed discriminatory against minorities. Whether you own a home or not is not a question that should be asked. Some interviewers may be sly about it, such as asking "Do you rent or own your home?"

Military Experience and Discharge

It is OK for an interviewer to ask whether you have served in the military. Some employers like to hire former military members, when possible. They may ask about military experience or training because they know how valuable it can be. At the same time, however, some war veterans can have a hard time reintegrating into the civilian job market. This a sensitive area. If the questions about your military experience become too probing, you are within your rights to steer the conversation simply to your skills, training, etc.

It is considered improper, however, to ask questions about what type of discharge you got. "Did you get an honorable discharge?" is actually not an appropriate question.

Disabilities and Health Issues

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects against questions about disabilities, health problems, and medical conditions.

You cannot be made to answer medical questions or to have a medical exam, before being offered a job. You cannot be asked if you have a disability, or a medical condition, prior to being offered a job.

Now, let's say you have an obvious disability and the interviewer can see this. He or she can then ask you about this disability, right? Wrong.

What an employer can ask you is whether you can actually perform the job. Related to the above, this means that while an employer cannot base hiring on medical questions, a medical exam, or disabilities, they can hire you "on the condition" that you are medically and/or physically fit to perform the job, as long as this is done with all other new employees.

Let's look at this one closely. If you have an obvious impairment that and employer thinks may present a problem, he or she may say, "I'll hire you but we will have to make sure that you are able to do the job physically, so you'll have to see a doctor and have them document whether you are OK to do this job." They have singled you out on the basis of what they perceive as an impairment. If however, every new job applicant is hired under the same stipulation, they are generally within their rights.

Once you have been hired and met any conditions, if appropriate, further requests for medical information are inappropriate unless you yourself are asking for some type of accommodation related to a medical condition, or if they believe that you may not be able to successfully or safely do a job because of a medical condition. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation, unfortunately.

Sexual Preference

They cannot ask you whether you are gay. Questions about sexual preference are prohibited. If and employer seems to be trying to ascertain your sexual preference without actually asking outright, its the same thing. Gender identity is likewise protected.


The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy whether it is hiring, or equal pay or firing, etc. Are you pregnant is not a question you should be asked. They can find out whether you are pregnant after you are hired, in order to make appropriate arrangement to see to any leave you may need because of pregnancy or childbirth. Now, how this is handled not always clearly spelled out. Basically, a pregnant woman who is temporarily unable to perform her job, whether it is due to a pregnancy-related medical condition or childbirth, the employer is to treat you the same as they would treat any other temporarily disabled employee.

Although many people think that they are entitled to Maternity Leave, this is not true of all employees. You must have worked for an employer for 12 months prior to obtaining the leave, to care for the new baby. You cannot take a job and then demand maternity leave 2 months later. The employer must also have a certain number of employees. In other words, if you know you are due very soon, and you will want maternity leave, you need to consider whether to take a job. Find out more.

Height and Weight

It is not absolutely prohibited for an employer to ask about your height and weight but it is generally prohibited. An employer cannot have height and weight requirements unless it can be demonstrated that they are necessary for the job. Height and weight are generally, then, not going to be proper questions in a restaurant interview. An employer might say, well, you have to be tall enough to get supplies off of high shelves. Nope. Obviously, this will not the only requirement of the job, and another employee could help, or, you could use a step ladder, etc. Questions like this should generally be avoided by interviewers.

Unemployed Status - Are you Unemployed?

If you ask me, the laws governing this are confusing and vague. Instead of commenting, I'll give you the exact wording used by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, on their website. Perhaps you will be able to make more of this than I can:

"Unemployed status" includes current or past periods of unemployment. Federal law does not prevent employers from asking about unemployment status, but the federal EEO laws do prohibit using this information to discriminate. If an employer does reject job applicants based on unemployed status, it must do so consistently, without regard to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, age, and genetic information.

Employers also must not screen out job applicants based on unemployed status if it does not help the employer to accurately identify responsible and reliable employees and if, at the same time, it significantly disadvantages people of a particular race, color, national origin, religion, or sex.

In addition, an employer may have to make exceptions to a policy of rejecting applicants based on unemployed status for applicants whose unemployed status was caused by a disability.

Depending on the state you live in, there also may be state laws governing employers' consideration of unemployed status."


This could be a confusing area. An employer cannot really inquire about your citizenship before hiring you. This does not mean that an employer can hire illegal workers!

Think of it like this. If an employer asks about citizenship, could they be screening U.S. citizens hoping to hire temporary visa holders or even undocumented workers, so they could pay them less than minimum wage under-the-table? Sure.

Yes, you are required to verify your identity and your eligibility to work in the United States, but only after you are hired. Now, it is perfectly OK for an interviewer, in documentation or verbally, to inform you that you will be required to verify your status, after being hired. Read more.

Marital Status and Number of Children

The laws governing this have to do with "intent to discriminate." They do not outright make it illegal for an employer to inquire about your medical status, but they do protect you against discrimination based on marital status, number of children, etc. Usually, such questions will be asked of women and not of men, and this is considered to be an intent to discriminate. If they ask women, they must also ask men. A few questions, like the following, are considered evidence of intent to discriminate. I'll put in some tricky ones.

  • Are you pregnant?
  • So, what does your husband do for a living?
  • Hmm, I see here that you have children, is that right?
  • Hey, I think I may know your husband, what is his name?
  • If you are hired, will you use a daycare or a babysitter?

Appropriate Questions for Restaurant Work

Most questions an interviewer asks you for your restaurant job should be directly related to your qualifications for the job, just like any other business. Your experience, strengths, weaknesses, etc. These may be very general questions about your personal characteristics and work habits, or very specific questions related to restaurant work. One of the first questions I was asked when interviewing for my first restaurant job was "Can you flip an egg?" I said, "sure I can flip an egg." Boy. was I surprised when there were no spatulas.

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