How to Handle Illegal or Inappropriate Interview Questions

Tips for Answering Interview Questions Employers Should Not Ask

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There are many topics which should be off-limits during a job interview. Questions about age, ancestry, citizenship, credit rating, criminal record, disabilities, family status, gender, military discharge, or religion should not be asked directly by an interviewer.

While the intent of these questions may be to determine if you are a good fit for the job, it is important to know that only information relevant to your ability to do the job can and should be asked.

What Are Illegal Interview Questions?

Federal and state laws prohibit prospective employers from asking certain questions that are not related to the job they are hiring for. Employers should not ask about any of the following unless it specifically relates to the job requirements because to not hire a candidate because of any one of them is discriminatory:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Sex
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Birthplace
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Marital/family status

Job requirements based on an employee’s gender, national origin, religion, or age can be used in very limited circumstances. They are lawful only when an employer can demonstrate that they are bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQs) that are reasonably necessary to the normal operation of business.  For example, it's acceptable to require the candidate to be a Roman Catholic for a job as director of faith formation for a Catholic parish. 

How to Respond When You Are Asked an Illegal Question

If you are asked an illegal interview question or the questions begin to follow an illegal trend, you always have the option to end the interview or refuse to answer the question.

It may be uncomfortable to do, but you need to be comfortable working at the company. If the questions you are being asked during the interview are indicative of the company's policies, you may be better off finding out now.

Sometimes an interviewer will ask inappropriate questions accidentally, and in that case, you may choose to answer them politely, avoiding the substance of the question but addressing the intent.

Here's more information on what interviewees can and cannot be asked and how to respond if you are asked an inappropriate question.

Questions About Age

There are instances where an employer may need to determine an applicant's age. The interviewer can ask a young interviewee if he has appropriate working papers. If the job requires that an applicant is of a minimum legal age for the position (i.e. bartender, etc.), the interviewer can ask as a pre-requisite to employment that proof of age be furnished. If the company has a regular retirement age, they are permitted to ask if the applicant is below that age.

However, an interviewer can't ask your age directly:

  • How old are you?
  • When did you graduate?
  • What is your date of birth?

If faced with these questions you can choose not to answer, or answer with the truthful, if vague, "My age is not an issue for my performance in this job."

Questions About Ancestry

There are few questions legal to ask relating to ancestry and race which are pertinent to employment.

During an interview, you may legally be asked, "How many languages are you fluent in?", or "Are you legally eligible to work in the United States?"

Questions such as "Is English your native language?", "Are you a U.S. Citizen?", "Were your parents born in the U.S.?", "What race do you identify yourself as?" are illegal for a person to be asked during an employment interview. Faced with questions such as these, you can refuse to answer, stating simply, "This question does not affect my ability to perform the job."

Questions About Credit

A prospective employer cannot ask about your financial status or credit rating during an interview. There are limited exceptions to this if you are applying for certain financial and banking positions. Also, employers can check the credit of job applicants with the candidate's permission.

Questions About Criminal Record

During an interview, an interviewer can legally ask about any convicted crimes that relate to the job duties. For example, if you are interviewing for a position that requires handling money or merchandise, you can legally be asked if you have ever been convicted of theft.

During an interview, you cannot be asked about arrests without convictions, or involvement in any political demonstrations. You may choose to tell the interviewer simply, "There is nothing in my past which would affect my ability to perform the duties of this job."

Depending on your state and the type of job for which you are applying, the employer may be able to check your criminal record as part of an employment background check.

Questions About Disability

During an interview, the interviewer may ask questions about your ability to perform specific tasks, such as "Are you able to lift safely and carry items weighing up to 30 pounds?", or "This position requires standing for the length of your shift, are you able to do that comfortably?" or "Are you able to sit comfortably for the duration of your shift?"

Under no circumstances is a prospective employer allowed to ask your height, weight, or any details regarding any physical or mental limitations you may have, except as they directly relate to the job requirements. If you choose to reply, you can state "I am confident that I will be able to handle the requirements of this position."

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protection for job seekers with disabilities. It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a qualified applicant with a disability. The ADA applies to private employers with 15 or more employees, as well as to state and local government employers.

Questions About Family Status

An interviewer can ask questions regarding whether you can meet work schedules, or travel for the position. He can ask about how long you expect to stay at a particular job or with the prospective firm. Whether you anticipate any extended absences can also be asked.

An interviewer can't ask your marital status, if you have children, what your child care situation is, or if you intend to have children (or more children). You cannot be asked about your spouse's occupation or salary. If you choose to answer a question of this kind, a graceful way to answer is to say that you can perform all the duties that the position entails.

Questions About Gender

In a face to face interview, it is unlikely that an interviewer will not know your gender, but important that your gender not be taken into account in her assessment of your ability to do the job. You can't be asked your gender during any interview for a position, unless it directly relates to your qualifications for a job, such as an attendant in a gender-restricted restroom or locker room.

Questions About Military Discharge

An interviewer may ask questions relating to the branch of the military in which you served and your attained rank. It is also legal to ask about any education or experience relating to the position to which you are applying.

You may not be asked about your type of discharge or about your military records. Questions relating to foreign military service are forbidden as well. If you choose to answer these questions, you can indicate that there is nothing in your records that would impair your ability to succeed in the job.

Questions About Religion

During an interview, an interviewer can ask if you can work during the normal hours of operation of the business.

An interviewer cannot ask your religious affiliation or holidays that you observe. It is illegal to be asked your place of worship or your beliefs. If you are asked questions of this kind, you may reply that your faith will not interfere with your ability to do the job.

Before You File a Claim

Before you file a claim for discrimination, you might want to consider that most discrimination is not deliberate. In many cases, the interviewer may simply be ignorant of the law. Even though the interviewer may have ask an illegal question it doesn't necessarily mean that the intent was to discriminate or that a crime has been committed.

Filing a Claim

If you believe you have been discriminated against by an employer, labor union or employment agency when applying for a job or while on the job because of your race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, or disability, or believe that you have been discriminated against because of opposing a prohibited practice or participating in an equal employment opportunity matter, you may file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

To file a charge, contact an attorney who handles labor issues, or contact your local EEOC office:
Filing a Charge

Questions Employers Can Ask

Interview Questions | Interview Questions Listed by Type of Job | Behavioral Interview Questions

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