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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: HubSpot

Questions at job interviews are meant to address your ability to do the work. Questions that delve into your personal life are deemed illegal.

In the future, in SOME locations (the state of Massachusetts and the city of Philadelphia, for example), asking you about your previous salary will be an illegal question, too. We'll provide more information about those laws as they are implemented.

Nevertheless, illegal questions do get asked. They 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.

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 entered the statutes and is being defined by case law.

Interviewer Intent in Asking Illegal Questions

Most employers know about illegal questions, and are careful to avoid them. Nevertheless, they do get asked.

Sometimes discrimination is the goal, but often these questions come later in the interview -- when the employer is familiar 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.


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. It’s 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 a 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 the best and I consider that my skills are right for the job and that I can commit to make 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?”

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 in any way.”


“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.”

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.

Pulling it All Together

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, it’s a critical survival skill that tops all other concerns. Your objective is always to get a job offer – you don’t have to accept it, but your ego will get a boost and you will have proof positive that your interviewing skills are improving. 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 Answering the Common Job Interview Questions and Smart Answers to Job Interview Questions.

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 and also on Google+.

2017 Knock Em Dead
Includes: 385 pages, 4 hours of video, and a free resume review

Guide to Successful Interviews

Essential Job Interviewing Requirements:

Succeeding in the Interview Process:


Succeeding at Different Kinds of Interviews:

Preparation for Successful Interviews:

More Information About Successful Interviews:

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