By Martin Yate
Questions at job interviews are meant to address your ability to do the work.
Questions that delve into your personal life are usually deemed illegal.
In MANY locations, asking you about your previous salary is an illegal question, too. [See What Is Your Current Salary? for a current list of locations.]
Nevertheless, illegal questions do get asked.
Those questions can make you uncomfortable and can negatively impact your interview performance. That is something you want to avoid because your ability to turn interviews into offers is probably not one of your greatest strengths.
From an objective point-of-view, you should always go to a job interview with the goal of getting the job offer. Whether you want the job or not is irrelevant.
Getting job offers means you are developing those interviewing skills -- you know, the ones that put food on your table. Learning how to successfully manage illegal questions is an important skill to develop.
In the USA, federal law forbids employers from discriminating against any person on the basis of sex, age, race, national origin, marital status, children or religion (there are exceptions).
More recently, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed to protect this important minority, and sexual orientation has entered the statutes and is being defined by case law.
Most employers know about illegal questions, and are careful to avoid them. But, assume you will be asked whether out of ignorance or evil intent.
Sometimes discrimination is the goal. But, often these questions typically come later in the interview...
...when the employer is comfortable with your skills and background, feels you can do the job, and wants to get to know you as a person.
Being aware of this employer mindset can help you maintain control and avoid over-reaction.
Let’s look at this through another way. Let’s say you and I meet at a barbecue. It’s almost certain that after we introduced ourselves (I have a funny Once-British accent), you’d immediately ask “Where are you from?”
It’s a natural question in a social setting. You would also probably ask if I was married, had kids, and maybe what church I attended.
You can see that while these are illegal questions in a job interview, in a social setting they are exactly the questions we all ask when we have an interest in getting to know someone.
So, it’s understandable that an interviewer may inadvertently ask an illegal question because s/he thinks you can do the job and is interested in you as a person. This is not always the case, but being aware of a less threatening explanation for an illegal question can help you respond in a more productive way.
An employer may not ask your age or date of birth. But, they may ask you whether you are over eighteen years old. In my article How to Fight Age Discrimination in Job Interviews, you will find productive ways to handle the age discrimination issue. That article will give you great ammunition to deal with this thorny issue.
An interviewer may not ask about your ancestry, national origin, ethnicity or parentage.
In addition, you cannot be asked about the naturalization status of your parents, spouse, or children.
The interviewer cannot ask about your birthplace, but may ask whether you are a U.S. citizen or a resident alien with the right to work in the United States.
An interviewer may not ask about your native language, the language you speak at home, or how you acquired the ability to read, write, or speak a foreign language, but may ask about the languages in which you are fluent, if knowledge of those languages is pertinent to the job.
In our global and multi-cultural age, fluency in foreign languages is a plus and should be included in your resume if relevant to job being pursued.
An interviewer may not ask about your marital status or if you are pregnant, or the ages of your children.
Neither may an interviewer ask about maiden names or whether you have changed your name, number of children or dependents, or your spouse’s occupation; or whether you wish to be addressed as Miss, Mrs., or Ms.
However, an interviewer may ask, as a common courtesy, how you like to be addressed.
Note: when the time for references checks arrives, a woman may be asked if she has worked under another name at one of her prior employers. If this applies to you and you do not get asked this question, make sure the H.R. department knows the name under which you worked at that company.
Although illegal to ask, if you are asked about marital status, it is usually prompted by concern about the impact your family duties and future plans will have on reliability and/or tenure.
So, it is often best to answer this question and remove any doubts the interviewer might otherwise have.
Your answer could be,
“Yes, I am. Of course, I make a separation between my work and my family life that allows me to give my all to my job. I have no problem with travel or late hours. These responsibilities are part of my work, and my family obligations have never interfered. My references will confirm this for you.”
Most often asked of women in their childbearing years. Legally, this isn’t any of the interviewer’s business, but it may be rooted in reliability issues with past employees. You could always answer “no,” because it’s illegal to ask it is difficult to penalize you later and besides, everyone has the right to a change of mind.
If you answer “yes,” qualify it, like this,
“But those plans are for way in the future, and they depend on the success of my career. Certainly, I want to do my best in my work. I consider that my skills are right for this job, and I am committed to making a long-term contribution.”
An interviewer may not ask about your religion, church, synagogue, or parish, the religious holidays you observe, or your political beliefs or affiliations; unless specifically related to the job’s deliverables.
S/he may not ask, for instance, “Does your religion allow you to work on Saturdays?” But s/he may ask something like, “This job requires work on Saturdays. Is that a problem?”
As with most illegal questions, it’s in your interest to answer without taking noticeable offense. You might say,
“I attend my church / synagogue / mosque regularly, but I make it my practice not to involve my personal beliefs in my work.”
“I have a set of beliefs that are important to me, but I do not mix those beliefs with my work and understand this is something employers don’t want interfering with work.”
If you are agnostic or atheist, many people will have mis-conceptions about what that means, so you may want to say something like, “I am an ethical Humanist.”
Your sexual orientation and how you express it in your personal life is no one’s business but yours. If you separate your professional persona from your personal persona (and we are all different at work than at home regardless of sexual orientation), you can avoid this becoming an issue. More on this at WorkPlaceFairness.
As you consider a question that seems to be illegal, remember to take into account that the interviewer may be asking because s/he thinks you can do the job and is interested in you as a person. Bear this in mind so that you don’t overreact.
Remember you are there to get a job offer, a critical survival skill that tops all other concerns.
If illegal questions are asked, you can turn down the job offer.
For more information about illegal interview questions, http://www.workplacefairness.org is a website dedicated to protecting workers rights and offers a deep well of information and resources.
For more information about successful job interviews, read Smart Answers to Interview Questions.
Successful careers don't happen by accident. Professional resume writing expert Martin Yate CPC is a New York Times best-seller and the author of 17 Knock Em Dead career management books. As Dun & Bradstreet says, "He's about the best in the business." For FREE resume-building advice and to view Martin's resume samples, visit the Knock Em Dead website. Join Martin on Twitter at @KnockEmDead.