How to Respond to Illegal Interview Questions

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Did you know several topics are off the table in interviews? The reason is to protect applicants from discrimination. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among others, prevent employers from asking job applicants about:

  • age
  • race
  • color
  • gender
  • national origin
  • birthplace
  • marital/parental/family status
  • religion
  • disabilities

Interview questions about the above criteria are illegal.

Therefore, employers don't always broach them in a direct manner. They can phrase questions to sound neutral, even innocent. That's because they face serious trouble if they follow discriminatory recruitment policies. Laws stop interviewers from invading your privacy, but sensitive questions still arise in one form or another. How you proceed depends on:

  • The intent of the interviewer
  • Their perceived reaction if you decline to answer
  • Your desire for the job

The Interviewer’s Intent

Before you take offense and point out the question is illegal, consider the interviewer’s intent. Is it possible they are inexperienced and aren't aware of the legalities involved? They should be familiar with recruitment procedures, but this doesn’t always happen.

Could the hirer have a genuine interest in you while making small talk?  For example, "What a beautiful ring – are you engaged?" If they’re only being curious, you don’t have to reveal your personal details.

Answer if you feel comfortable, or sidestep the question in a diplomatic way. Remember, even in casual situations, the interviewer is treading on dangerous ground.

When employers have negative experiences with recruits and are trying to prevent future headaches, they sometimes ask prying questions They may have an ideal candidate in mind after being burned in the past.

And if the interviewer is a supervisor, instead of an HR representative, they might be unaware of the legality of their actions. What do you do when this happens?

The best way to handle the situation and still come up on top is to identify the hirer's agenda. Why are they asking you if you go to church on Sundays? Some tech jobs, such as network administrators, require on-call duty on weekends and holidays. Perhaps the interviewer is thinking of scheduling options. Focus your answer on your ability to do the job. For instance, respond with, “I do different activities on the weekends, but I can work with whatever schedule attached to the job.”

Legal vs. Illegal Interview Questions

Interviewers can ask questions with a direct link to the job or to legal requirements. But how they word them makes a big difference. For example:

  • "How long has your family been in this country?" is inappropriate. However, they can ask, "Are you eligible to work in the United States?" because it’s illegal to hire people without the correct papers to work in the country.

  • Interviewers can't ask, "What are your arrangements for child care?" But they can ask, "Are you able to work a nine-to-five schedule?" if that's what the job requires.

    How to Respond to Illegal Interview Questions

    When you face illegal or inappropriate interview questions, be diplomatic in your response. You won't get hired if you misread the interviewer’s intentions and overreact. On the other hand, they want to see how you handle delicate situations, so here’s the perfect chance for you to demonstrate your professionalism and tact. You have a couple of options:

    • Give a brief answer to set limits to the topic. If the interviewer presses you for more, politely mention you’re happy to answer their question but aren’t sure how it relates to the job. That gives them a chance to explain themselves.
    • Another option is to address the “question behind the question.” They can’t ask you certain things, but they need answers to establish company fit. So, for example, if they ask, "Do you have any children?", assure the hirer you can meet your job obligations without fail.
    • Navigate your answers towards your skills and strengths. If you sense the above question is trying to establish if you can juggle job responsibilities and taking care of a family, draw attention to your multitasking and scheduling skills.

    If the employer asks you something you find incredibly offensive, reconsider whether you want to work for the company at all. You can also file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

    Conclusion

    Law’s are in place to protect the workforce from discrimination, but that won't stop recruiters from trying to bend the rules. It’s unintentional at times, or companies are trying to cover their backs. Use your discretion when answering sensitive questions or calling out hirers on the legality of their questions.

    If you are passionate about the job, you may consider giving the interviewer leeway. Or you can be tactful in drawing their attention to what matters most -- your skills and ability to excel in the role. Ample preparation before your interview will give you the confidence to deal with every possibility and maximize interview success.

    This article has since been updated by Laurence Bradford.