On my first day as a recruiter, my boss handed a list of things that I was not allowed to say to a candidate.
“Seriously, asking these questions can get us in legal trouble,” my boss said. “And while I don’t think you’d actually say any of them, I’d have to fire you if you did.”
Some of the lines on the list were so obviously off-limits, I would’ve fired myself if I said any of them. But others surprised me—even if they were a bit strange.
I bet you’re now thinking of a few times when someone asked you an uncomfortable question during an interview. It probably threw you off because it felt leading, like it was asking something else altogether.
To prevent you from being thrown like that again, here are a few of the “off-limits” lines you might hear—and how to respond professionally.
1. “Your Impressive Education Background Must’ve Cost a Pretty Penny.”
This sounds like a compliment, right? But I’ve learned over time that this is a subtle way of inquiring about your personal finances. This might not seem like a big deal, but Vivian Giang writes in Business Insider that inquiring about any outstanding debt is a no-no. Even if you tend to be transparent about your salary and any debt you have, you have no obligation to disclose any of that information to the person you're speaking with.
How to Respond
If this comes up for some reason, don’t be afraid to respond with: “I’m very proud of the school(s) I attended, but don’t feel comfortable disclosing the financials behind my attendance.”
2. “Where Are You Originally From?”
Truth time: Someone actually asked me this a few years ago. My response was, “Oh, I grew up in New Jersey.” As you can probably guess, that wasn’t the answer the company was hoping to hear. While many recruiters understand that this is one of the most blatantly inappropriate interview questions to ask, some people still end up blurting them out. Even if a recruiter seems to be asking this to be friendly, the truth is that this is still not OK.
How to Respond
If someone asks about your race or background, Muse writer Angela Smith suggests dodging this illegal question by reinforcing your work status. Feel free to respond by saying, “I’ve lived in a handful of places, but in case you’re wondering, I am legally allowed to work in this country.”
3. “Do You and Your Spouse Want Kids Someday?”
I can remember a couple of instances in which I was asked this question and figured that the recruiter was trying to get to know me on a more personal level. On one hand, it seemed like a good way to get to know me. On the other hand, I realized that this could also be a sneaky way for a recruiter to find out if you’ll need to take parental leave down the road. And if an employer were to use that against you, that would present all kinds of legal issues.
How to Respond
Here’s where it’s not a bad idea to be a little abrupt, even if you really want the job. Try something along the lines of, “That’s an incredibly personal question, and because I’m so excited about discussing my qualifications for the job with your company, I’d rather focus on discussing the position.”
It’s tempting to simply tell a recruiter whatever he or she wants to know, when he or she wants to know it. After all, there’s a job on the line, and if you really want it, it’s only natural to feel like you should be transparent as possible and answer everything asked.
But, unfortunately, everything being asked isn’t always OK and the best way to prepare for these uncomfortable moments is to come prepared with how you’ll pivot back to what matters—why you’re the most qualified person for the job.
With that said, this article’s been prepared for general information purposes only. The information presented is not legal advice and is not to be acted on as such. If you feel that you’ve been discriminated against, you should consult a qualified lawyer and thinking about filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Photo of job interview courtesy of PeopleImages/Getty Images.
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy or follow his blog.More from this Author