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How to Handle Illegal (or Inappropriate) Interview Questions

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Illegal Interview Questions

You’re asked at an interview, “Are you married?” Even though the question may seem harmless, don’t assume it is.

In fact, it’s an illegal question to ask a candidate. Your answer could hurt your chances of being hired. An interviewer may form opinions about you that have nothing to do with whether or not you’re qualified for a job.

Inappropriate or illegal interview questions shouldn’t pop up, but you need to be prepared if they do. Even when asked innocently by the interviewer, these questions can make some candidates feel awkward, embarrassed and confused. Knowing how to identify them and how to respond can protect you and help move the interview process forward.

How do I know if a question is inappropriate or illegal?

All questions should be about your work skills and experience. Interview questions that don’t relate to your ability to do the job are generally considered off-limits.

Common inappropriate or illegal questions include those relating to age, gender, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, country of origin, health status and other topics that are irrelevant to your qualifications to perform the duties of the job.

Certain questions are considered inappropriate or illegal because they can lead an interviewer to purposefully or inadvertently discriminate against you as a candidate. For example, if you answer yes when asked if you are married, an interviewer might jump to the conclusion that you would be less willing to travel for a job, even if it’s not true.

The basic rule of thumb to knowing whether a question is appropriate or not is: Does the question have anything to do with your work skills or experience for the job you are applying for?

If not, then you can respond without providing information that might influence your interviewer’s personal opinion of you so that he or she can focus on your credentials.

How do I respond?

Responding to inappropriate or illegal questions can be tricky.

You can certainly choose to answer the question honestly, though a candid response could jeopardize your candidacy for the job.

You can also refuse to answer the question, which may be appropriate in some situations, but can also make you seem defensive or unfriendly if the question was asked without ulterior motives.

Luckily, there are ways to answer these questions without seeming evasive and without being offensive. Here are some techniques:

• Gracefully avoid the question and steer the conversation elsewhere
• Keep your answers short, broad and general
• Redirect a question to your interviewer
• Ask the interviewer why the question is relevant to your job

Remember that sometimes these questions are asked innocently — the interviewer is making conversation and hasn’t been properly trained regarding what questions to avoid. If this is the case, going straight to “I’d prefer not to answer that” can lead to unnecessary awkwardness. Do your best to diplomatically dodge the question first.

Example Answers to Inappropriate or Illegal Questions

1. “Do you have kids?”
kids playing with cans
Most interviewers should know that this is an illegal question. Even if the interviewer is asking just to make chit-chat, there are risks to answering directly.

Your interviewer might feel that family responsibilities could be a distraction to the job. Or he or she might feel that having children could make you a more responsible and devoted employee. Either way, whether or not you have children is not a qualification for the job.

You could turn it around on the interviewer, drawing attention to a family photo in his or her office: “Well, it looks like you do. Is that your son in the picture?”

This will likely distract the interviewer from the original query.

If there’s no handy photo nearby, you could try something like: “You know, I’ve read that this is a very family-friendly place to work, but I’m most interested in learning more about the position responsibilities — from the job description, it seems like a great fit for me.”

With this approach, you’ve dodged the question and used a related topic to change the subject completely.

If the interviewer just won’t let go of this illegal question, you may have to be a little more firm. It’s okay to say that you’d prefer not to answer the question if your more graceful dodges don’t work. Just keep your voice and demeanor neutral and avoid seeming emotional or defensive.

You might want to respond in a breezy tone: “Is that relevant to the job I’m applying for?”

Most interviewers will take this cue and move on.

2. “When did you graduate from college?”
college grad
This question sounds innocent enough. However, stating the year you graduated can reveal your age and lead your interviewer to unfairly conclude that you are either too old or too young for a job.

Does your age have any direct relevance to your ability to do your job? Probably not.

In fact, if you are 40 or older, it is illegal for interviewers to ask you about your age, even in an indirect manner.

Your answer could be: “It has been a little while now, but I still think that college was one of the best experiences of my life.”

This is a broad and positive response and can serve as a segue to describe how your education led to your current career path.

3. “What kinds of TV shows do you like?”

This could be a friendly question, just a way of learning a little bit about you.

On the other hand, stating your favorite TV shows could give your interviewer the impression that you hold certain religious or political views which are irrelevant to whether or not you’re qualified for the job.
tv spaghetti
Be careful not to reveal anything potentially controversial.

You might answer: “I like watching the news and cooking shows mostly. Have you ever seen Top Chef?”

Notice again that you’ve redirected a question to at the interviewer and that your response is general enough to answer the question without revealing unnecessary personal information.

Remember: If an interviewer continues to press you to answer a question you don’t think is appropriate or legal, you can always ask in a neutral tone of voice, “Can you help me understand how this question is relevant to the job I’m applying for?” Most of the time, this will remind the interviewer that he or she has gotten off track and help put the interview back into focus.

Well-trained interviewers know which types of questions they shouldn’t ask. But not all interviewers are well-trained, and sometimes they may just be trying to make small talk and want to get to know you better.

Be aware if a topic comes up that doesn’t relate to your job skills and experience or doesn’t seem relevant to the job you’re applying for. Unfortunately, your response could sway an interviewer’s personal opinion of you and make the difference between receiving a call back or a cold shoulder.

If you learn to identify inappropriate or illegal questions, you’ll be better prepared to respond so that both you and your interviewer can avoid awkwardness and move on to the next question.

Related to this subject is a short ABC 20/20 clip about some of the sneaky ways certain employers ask illegal questions:

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Written by

Pamela Skillings

Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.

1 Comment to How to Handle Illegal (or Inappropriate) Interview Questions

  • Nigel Moya

    Great post Pamela! Illegal interview questions are surprisingly common these days and they prevent dozens, perhaps hundreds, of perfectly capable candidates from getting hired every day. Learning how to evade them and redirect the interview to a more appropriate subject is a key interview skill that is often overlooked by job-seekers.