Job hunting can be stressful.

As a candidate, you put a lot of effort into crafting your cover letter and your resume, networking your way to the perfect openings, and managing your nerves on the day of the interview. You want to make a good impression by answering questions in a way that positions you as a strong candidate.

So what do you do if the hiring manager poses inappropriate interview questions - or worse, illegal? Unfortunately, this is not a hypothetical question. You may be surprised to find out that according to a survey conducted by Harris Poll, a shocking 20% of over 2,000 hiring and human resource managers that were surveyed indicated they have asked a candidate illegal interview questions. When the same group of hiring managers was presented with a list of illegal questions and asked whether they were legal, at least 33% said they weren't sure. Since you cannot always rely on the hiring managers to do the right thing, researching this subject before the big day can help you map out tricky territory.    

First off, let's draw the line on what illegal interview questions are. In summary, race, gender, nationality, religion, military status, marital status, and disability are all protected categories. That means employers cannot use them to discriminate in their hiring practices.

That sounds reasonable, you might say. What does that look like in practice? Here are some examples of questions that are illegal during the interview process. Some of them are so obvious you might cringe. Others are veiled and round-about. You might even spot one or two that you have been asked in an interview – I know I did!

“Who will take care of your children while you are at work?”

A good rule of thumb on any question that hints at gender or family status discrimination is to ask yourself, “Would the employer be asking this if I were the opposite gender?” The implication in this question is that you may not be able to fulfil the responsibilities of the job because you are a parent.

A legal way of asking this question might look like this: “Will you be available to be present in the office from 9 to 6 during the work week?” As long as that is a valid job requirement, and the question is asked of every candidate, clarifying availability is fair game.

“Are you planning to have more children?”

You family plans are legally off-limits in an interview, and this is definetly an inappropriate interview question. While you may be tempted to share pregnancy or toddler stories with a hiring manager (especially if she comes across as friendly or has a picture of a young child on her desk), the prudent thing to do is to refrain from doing so.

“How often are you away for Army Reserve training?”

This is an example of a discriminatory question based on military status. A legal way of reframing this question is, “Are you available to travel two weeks out of the month to exhibit at conferences and visit clients?” If those are legitimate job requirements.

“Have you ever been arrested?”

Asking about the arrest history of the candidate is an illegal interview question. Notably, the hiring manager can ask whether or not you have been convicted of a crime, or have used illegal drugs in the last 3 months, as neither criminal conviction nor illegal drug use are protected categories.

“Are you on any medication?”

This can be viewed as a roundabout way to ask about your health history and possible disability. A legal way to address the underlying concern is, “Are you fit to operate heavy machinery, as would be required by this job description?”

“Do you attend church every Sunday?”

This question hints at potential religious discrimination. A legal way to address a legitimate employment concern is along the lines of, “Are you available for after-hours and weekend work duty if needed?”

“What year did you graduate from high school?”

This is just another way of asking how old you are. Not OK.

Now that you know what illegal and inappropriate interview questions might look like, what should your strategy be if one of those lands in your court? You have one of three choices.

  1. Answer the question. Many candidates do this as a default simply because they are afraid of coming across as non-collaborative, or don't see anything wrong with the question. My advice is to consider simply answering the question if you are comfortable doing so. Short and sweet answers are best.

  1. Refuse to answer the question. With an illegal question, it is certainly within your rights to not answer it. You can point to the protected nature of the category as your reason for not answering. Most employers will back off. Be prepared that this strategy can create some awkwardness – not through any fault of yours, but uncomfortable nonetheless.

  1. Answer the intent of the question. This option allows you to protect your rights and tactfully address the hiring manager's valid concern. You can offer a response that targets the heart of the question. Instead of answering “Where were you born?” directly, you might way “If you meant to ask whether I am legally allowed to work in the United States, the answer is yes.” Alternatively, you could redirect with a clarifying question. “Help me understand why this matters, because I want to better understand the job I'm interviewing for,” will do the trick.

Now that we got illegal questions out of the way, let's briefly address inappropriate questions. Believe it or not, cringe-worthy questions are sometimes asked at interviews. HR professionals are usually better trained on this subject, but it is not unheard of for line managers to ask whatever comes to mind. Some examples:

  • “Do you get PMS?”

  • “Can you flirt with customers to make them spend more money?”

  • “Can you wear more makeup?”

Your choices on an inappropriate interview question are essentially the same as for an illegal question. You can answer it directly, use humor to during the interview to redirect, or ask the hiring manager to demonstrate how the question applies to the position you are applying for. If an inappropriate question turns you sour on the position, consider it a blessing in disguise and fodder for a good story.

In closing, my best advice when dealing with illegal and inappropriate interview questions is to remain calm. In the interview, as in the rest of your professional life, you have control over what happens next. Don't let a prospective employer bully you into disclosing something that you are not comfortable with.

Occasionally, hiring managers use illegal questions as an intimidation tool. Most of the time, however, the interviewer may not realize he is asking an illegal or an inappropriate question. This is particularly true if a portion of the interview is an informal lunch with prospective co-workers. Because of the relaxed setting, it can be easy for them to slip into personal territory with you that might be normal among them – but is not appropriate in the context of an interview. Remember that you are in charge, don't get defensive, and protect your personal boundaries with grace and confidence. Aim to diffuse the situation, and use this as an opportunity to showcase your interpersonal skills.

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