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How To Handle Illegal Interview Questions

illegal interview questions

Figuring out how best to answer the questions directed at you during a job interview is stressful enough on its own but when you throw in questions that cross an ethical line, things can get pretty uncomfortable.

Chances are if a question seems overly intrusive it’s also illegal for the employer to be asking it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has established guidelines that offer protection from discrimination for job seekers, which is why certain questions simply aren’t legally permitted to be asked during an interview.

Still, many employers wind up asking questions they shouldn’t anyway, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes without realizing it and other times, intentionally. You don’t want to storm out indignant when one of these comes up, because it may not represent the ethos of the entire company—it could just be one rogue (or misinformed) interviewer.

You have essentially three choices when faced with a question you know you shouldn’t be asked. You can just answer it, if you don’t mind providing the information and don’t want to cause a fuss. But you shouldn’t answer any question that makes you uncomfortable.

You could refuse to answer the question, letting the interviewer know the question doesn’t seem legal or relevant to the requirements of the job. It’s advisable to save this kind of response for questions that are truly offensive or troubling.

The approach that straddles the line between these two is tactfully sidestepping the question; in other words, answering without really answering. That allows you respond without sacrificing your right to be protected from discrimination. Whenever you can, try to relate your answer to job performance—that should guide how you answer.

Here are some of the most commonly asked, yet illegal, interview questions and suggested ways to handle them:

Q: Are you married?  

Women are apt to get this question more than men, along with questions about family planning. If you’re asked about being married, you can deflect the question with a question:

A: “That’s an interesting question. I’ve never been asked that during a job interview before. Can you help me understand how that relates to the job?”

Q: Do you have kids? Or Do you plan on having kids?

The employer might be asking because they are worried about extended leave you might take or child care issues interfering with your ability to get the job done.

A: With that in mind, you could answer this way:  “I am very focused on my career right now, whether or not I decide to raise a family” or “There is nothing in my family life that will get in the way of doing my job.”

Q: Your resume doesn’t list the dates you attended college. When did you graduate?

This question isn’t really about your graduation date but your age, and that’s not a legal question.

A: Try to divert the line of questioning by saying something like: “Oh, did you go to Princeton too?” or “Do you have other Princeton grads here? I had a great experience there.”

Q: Are you active in any religious organizations or community groups?

This is an attempt to find out your religion, something employers can’t use to make hiring decisions. But if your resume lists religious organizations for which you’ve volunteered, you may be asked about that.

A: Avoid giving any specific information about your religious beliefs, but you can discuss examples of things you accomplished as a volunteer that are relevant to the job for which you’re applying. For example, if you volunteered to build a school in a developing country, you can talk about working as part of a team of diverse people, having to adapt to a new environment quickly, overcoming language barriers and anything else that could help you in your job.  Employers can ask about professional organizations to which you belong, as long as those organizations relate to your professional qualifications.

Q: Are you aware that this job requires a lot of travel and in the past we’ve hired a more athletic person for that reason?

“More athletic” here means “not overweight.” The best answer is one that skirts this entirely.

A: “There is no task in the description for this position that I cannot perform.”

Finally, if you’re asked a question that feels intrusive but could be relevant, be direct and ask for more information: “Can you tell me how this is pertinent to this discussion?” This way you’ll be able to make a decision about whether or not you should answer the question or carefully work your way around it.

About the Author

Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist who writes about entrepreneurship, technology, small businesses and the workplace. She was a career columnist for the New York Times and is a regular contributor to the paper's small business section.