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How to Handle Illegal Questions in a Job Interview

By Martin Yate

How to Handle Illegal Questions in a Job Interview -- source: HubSpotQuestions at job interviews are meant to address only your ability to do the work.

Questions that delve into your personal life are usually deemed illegal.

Nevertheless, illegal questions do get asked. Sometimes by accident, and sometimes on purpose.

Those questions can make you uncomfortable and can negatively impact your interview performance.

Do your best to avoid becoming upset or uncomfortable because your ability to turn interviews into offers is probably not one of your greatest strengths. And being upset will only make it harder.

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.

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The Interviewer's Intent in Asking Illegal Questions  

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 their goal.  

Some organizations have their "standards" and people who don't meet those requirements are not hired. But, if you aren't one of them, you probably wouldn't be happy or successful working for that employer.

  •   Sometimes, getting to know you better is their 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 learning more about you as a person.

Of course, asking the illegal questions is not always done accidentally. But, being aware of a less threatening explanation for an illegal question can help you respond in a more productive way.

  •   Sometimes, ignorance is the reason they ask.  

The interviewer may be new and untrained, or, possibly, the organization isn't up-to-date about which questions are inappropriate (what else are they not up-to-date about?). So, they ask without knowing that the question is illegal.

What Interview Questions Are Illegal?

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 also entered the statutes and is being defined by case law. And, since 2018, asking questions about your current salary are illegal in some locations.

 Questions About Your Age  

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.

 Questions About Ethnicity  

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.

 Questions About Marital Status  

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.”

 Questions About Children / Plans to Have Children  

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.”

 Questions About Religion  

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?”

 Questions About Sexual Orientation  

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.

 Questions About Current/Previous Salary  

In MANY locations, asking you what your current (or most recent) employer paid you is an illegal question which may or may not be asked inadvertently. [See What Is Your Current Salary? for a current list of locations.]

Regardless of the legality of this question, it is a very good question to dodge because what a previous employer paid you should not be relevant to a new employer which very likely has a different budget and different employee-retention goals.

In fact, legal or not, if this question is asked, view it as a yellow flag about how this employer treats staff. Perhaps this employer does not pay employees well or fairly, and so should not be considered as a good opportunity.

Strategies for Answering to Illegal Questions

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 when you respond.

Remember you are there to get a job offer, a critical survival skill that tops all other concerns. Responding angrily or aggressively will likely end the opportunity for you.

Your best strategy is to avoid showing discomfort or anger. Options for your response:

  •   Answer the question.  


    This is the easiest and simplest response, but not necessarily the best.

    For example, if asked about your religion, it is 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.”

    Or,

    “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 misconceptions about what that means, so you may want to say something like,

    “I am an ethical Humanist.”

  •   Dodge the question.  

    If it doesn't feel like the question is being asked in a getting-to-know-you mode, you can politely respond with your own question to redirect the discussion.

    If the question is about your age, you can turn the question into a personal marketing opportunity by responding with something like,

    "I've noticed that most of your staff appear to be under 30, so having someone with more experience should be very helpful."

    Or, if the question is about your family, you can try to deflect and distract by responding with

    "Your question brings up one of my concerns -- I'm interested in learning more about how you measure success here."

    Or

    " I'm interested in what a typical work day (or week) is here, and how much over-time is expected of employees."

  •   Express surprise.  

  • You can share that you know the question is illegal and are surprised that the question is being asked by saying something like,

    "I'm surprised you would ask a question like that. Have you had serious problems with this issue?

    Depending on the interviewer, this response may end the opportunity for you. Of course, by asking the question, they may be making it clear that they wouldn't be a good employer for you.

  •   Refuse to answer.  

    For example, to avoid answering an illegal question, ask

    "Why do you ask?",

    Or

    "How is that relevant to this job?"

    You may learn more about the job (useful), and then you can decide if you want to answer should they continue to pursue an answer.

    Again, depending on the interviewer and the organization, this response may end the opportunity for you.

Choose whichever response feels most appropriate and comfortable for you. Be cautious if the employer asks many of the illegal questions -- that employer may not be a good place for you to work. Don't be surprised if your refusal to answer a question ends the opportunity for you.

The Bottom Line

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.

More About Successful Job Interviews:


About the author...

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.


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Guide to Successful Interviews

Essential Job Interviewing Requirements:

Questions for YOU to Ask Them (or Not)

Navigating the Interview Process:

Succeeding at Different Kinds of Interviews:

Steps to Prepare for Your Interview:

More Information About Successful Interviews:


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