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That Just Happened: Responding to Inappropriate Interview Questions

Have you ever come out of an interview wondering if some of the questions you were asked were overly personal or even illegal? Perhaps you answered those questions even though they made you uncomfortable, because you didn’t want to jeopardize your chances of getting the job. In retrospect, maybe you’re worried that your answers to those inappropriate questions could work against you in the hiring process.

Knowing ahead of time what questions hiring managers and recruiters aren’t permitted to ask is imperative. Once you know the law, you have a better idea of how to handle questions if they come up.

What’s off limits?

Generally, employers are not allowed to ask questions about your:

  • age
  • race
  • religion
  • gender
  • national origin
  • birthplace
  • military discharge
  • credit history
  • marital status
  • health or disability
  • children, or plans to have children

Most seasoned interviewers should know these questions are illegal. To make matters more confusing, there are lots of exceptions to the rules. Sometimes, it’s the wording of a question that determines whether it is legal or illegal. For example, says job searching expert, Alison Doyle, interviewers aren’t permitted to 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, and if every applicant is asked the same thing.”

Legal or illegal?

Wondering if a question is fair game? Ask yourself: “Is this question directly related to my ability to carry out the responsibilities of the job?” If a question is outside of this realm, and falls under any of the categories above, it probably isn’t legal. If you are working with a recruiter, feel free to contact him after the interview to express your concerns. Most recruiters are quite knowledgeable about employment law and can advise you about how to handle difficult interview questions should they arise in the future.

Go with your gut

So, how do you handle it when an interviewer asks a question you aren’t comfortable answering — and believe may be illegal? You have several choices, depending on your level of discomfort with the question and how badly you want the job.

Business leader and author Bernard Marr advises jobseekers to assume that some inappropriate questions are asked in good faith. “Look beyond the question,” says Marr, “and ask yourself, ‘What is the motive for asking the question?’” Using this kind of a thought process, says Marr, may enable you to answer the question the interviewer is getting at, without compromising your right to privacy.

“For example,” he says, “if your interviewer asks whether you are a U.S. citizen, you can simply answer, ‘If you are asking whether I am legally allowed to work in this country, then the answer is yes.’”

If an interviewer isn’t accepting your attempt to sidestep the question gracefully, you may have no choice but to point out that the question is illegal. Marr recommends saying something like this: “I don't believe the question is relevant to assess my suitability for this job. Also, I trust this type of question is actually illegal to ask in job interviews and you might want to consider withdrawing it so that the interview stays on track...” Perhaps you won’t get the job, but at least you’ll retain your self-respect.

If you sense that the interviewer’s motives are less than innocent, trust your instincts. After all, if you are feeling this uncomfortable at the interview, this is probably not the right manager and workplace for you. You may choose to end the interview and move on with your job search. However, if you feel that an interviewer is guilty of discriminatory hiring policies, you may choose to contact an attorney and make a complaint by contacting the United States Equal Opportunity Commission at http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/howtofil.html.