5 Illegal Interview Questions and How to Dodge Them
You’re sitting in the interview for your dream job, and it’s going great. You’ve knocked the hard questions out of the park, and you and the interviewer are really hitting it off. Then, out of the blue, she asks, “Are you planning on having kids?”
Yep, that’s illegal. And so is any question related to your family, nationality, gender, race, religion, and more. But unfortunately, these questions get asked more often than you'd think, and before you get to the interview, it’s good to know how to respond if you’re faced with one.
I’ve found that the best approach is to determine why the interviewer is asking the question and whether she has a legitimate concern she’s trying to address. Then, tailor your answer to speak to that concern, gracefully avoid the illegal part of the question, and turn the conversation back to your job-related strengths. Here are a few of the most common examples, and how to face them.
Discriminatory questions about gender are wide and far-reaching. I’ve seen interviewees get questions from the overt (“Do you think a woman can do this job effectively?”) to something more subtle (“As a single mom, what child-care arrangements have you made?”).
But the fact is, nothing related to gender should be asked in the interview process—at all. If it comes up, the best approach is to answer the question, but without referencing gender. For example, if you’re asked, “How would you handle managing a team of all men?”, drop the last part of the question and focus on your leadership skills, instead. Try: “I’m very comfortable in a management role. In fact, in my last position, the department I led exceeded its annual sales goals for three years straight.”
2. Marital or Family Status
In the movie Picture Perfect, Jennifer Aniston’s character hires an acquaintance to pretend to be her fiancé. The reason? Her boss won’t promote her because she’s single—his rationale being that if she doesn’t have any roots or permanence, there’s nothing to keep her from wandering away. Enter the fake fiancé, and she gets the promotion.
The chances that you’ll be faced with something so direct are slim. But, you may be asked when you’re planning on getting married, or if you’ll continue to work after having children. Any questions related to your family status are technically illegal, but employers often ask them to get a read on your future commitment to the job and company.
An appropriate answer to these types of questions would be “You know, I’m not quite there yet. But I am very interested in the career paths at your company. Can you tell me more about that?” This assures the interviewer that you’re committed to your professional growth, but doesn’t promise them anything in terms of your future—and lets you steer the conversation back to a job-related topic.
3. Citizenship, Nationality, or Language
U.S. employers can get in big trouble for hiring people not legally allowed to work in the country, which has lead to companies taking stronger measures to find out about their applicants even before they’re hired. But the only way they can do that legally to ask the question directly: “Are you legally authorized to work in the U.S.?” Any other way of phrasing it, such as “Where are you from?” or “Where were you born?” is illegal.
That said, these types of questions often slip out as conversation starters, so you can take a couple of different approaches to answering them. If you think it’s a friendly mistake, just smile and say, “California. What about you?” But if this makes you uncomfortable, you can gracefully dodge it with something like, “I’ve actually lived a lot of places. But I am legally allowed to work in the U.S., if that’s what you’re asking.”
We've all heard of age discrimination—younger candidates getting passed up for more experienced ones, and older workers being pushed aside in favor of junior employees who might cost less in terms of salary. Though some states have laws that prohibit age discrimination against younger employees, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act actually only protects workers who are over 40 years old. This means that a potential employer might tread into territory that’s discriminatory to a younger person, but not necessarily illegal. For example, “We’ve generally hired older, more experienced people for this type of position.” Unfair? Yes. Illegal? No.
This situation should rightly concern you, but be prepared to address what the interviewer is trying to get at: Do you have the required experience for the position? A good answer would be to turn back to your job-related skills: highlighting specific accomplishments and how your experience can benefit the company.
An employer may be curious about your religious practices in order to plan their weekend or holiday schedules—and ask questions such as “What religious holidays do you observe?” or “Do you go to church on Sunday mornings?” While asking about your schedule (e.g. “can you work on Sunday mornings?”), is appropriate, employers should never tie it to religion. If someone probes into this part of your personal life, try answering back with a question: “What is the schedule like for the position?” Or, you assure them of your availability by saying something like “I’m certain that I’ll able to work the schedule you need for this position.”
Keep in mind that many times, illegal questions aren’t asked with ill intent. An inexperienced interviewer may say something like, “That’s a beautiful accent. Where are you from?” as a way to spark conversation. She might not realize the question is illegal, or may not know how to frame the question in a legal way.
But if you feel that a question is inappropriate, you can definitely ask the interviewer to clarify how it relates to the job. You are also within your rights to tell the interviewer that you’re not willing to answer a question that makes you uncomfortable. And if a question is truly offensive and discriminatory, you have the option of filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
When faced with an illegal question, you have to take into consideration a variety of factors in deciding how to respond—the intent of the question, how much you want the job, and how your response might hurt your prospects for getting it. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide the best course of action for the situation—but it’s good for you to know where the law stands.
Photo of interview table courtesy of Shutterstock.
Angela has over 10 years of human resources and non-profit administration, and is currently the Director of Human Resources and Career Services at Burlington College in Vermont. A seasoned recruiter, she holds a Professional in Human Resources (PHR) certification, and was recently named one of Vermont's 40 Under 40 by Vermont Business Magazine. Angela is a sought after consultant and speaker for workshops on resume writing, job searching tips, and interview techniques. You can find her writing at A Working Evolution, TheDailyMuse.com, and Forbes.com. In her spare time, she dreams of running away to Paris to study pastry-making.More from this Author