How to recognize and answer illegal interview questions

By Xin Lu on 3 April 2009 (Updated 16 June 2011) 34 comments
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In the United States job seekers are protected by a myriad of anti-discrimination laws.  Despite these laws many potential employers still want employees that fit a  narrow profile and they may ask probing questions to find out if you fit.  Here is how you can recognize which questions are potentially illegal for an employer to ask, and what you can do if you encounter these questions.

Generally, interviewers cannot ask you anything pertaining to your race, birthplace,  religion, age, sexual preference, marital and family status, or health.  For example, an interviewer cannot ask you how many kids you have or if you plan to have kids because that pertains to family status.  They also cannot ask you how old you are during the interview process.  You will probably have to provide your birthdate to human resournces after you are hired, but during interviews it is illegal to ask someone their age.

Sometimes interviewers can be sneaky and ask you questions that would give them the answer to illegal questions.  For example, instead of asking you your age, they may ask what year you graduated college and make an estimate.  Also, instead of asking straight up if you drink or smoke, an interviewer could ask if you have been disciplined for tobacco use in the past.

You should be able to recognize these personal questions because most of the time they probably sound unrelated to the job you are applying for and they can be very prying.   Generally, if a question sounds too personal you should avoid answering it, or answer it in a way that relates to the job.  For example, if an employer asks you if you have kids, you should probably say something to the effect that that you will be able to perform your job with or without kids.If you are asked about your age, then you can say that you are of legal working age.  Basically, you should steer the conversation back to the job you are applying for.  If an employer is insistent on asking you things you know is discriminatory, then you should state that you are uncomfortable answering these questions, and perhaps you should look for someone else to work for.  An interview goes both ways, and if an interviewer makes you uncomfortable on a first meeting then working with him or her  might be uncomfortable in the long term. 

As a rule of thumb if your personal life does not relate to the job you are applying for then you probably should not volunteer too much information. A little bit of small talk is okay, but you never know what strangers may be offended by, and keeping the focus of the interview on the job you want may be the best way to secure the job.

Have you been asked probing or sneaky personal questions during an interview?  How did you deal with it?

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Guest's picture
devil

I've been asked about my parental status in a roundabout way. Since I don't have kids and never wanted them, I used it to my advantage by stating point-blank that I would NEVER be a parent. This (implied question) only came up twice in many years and both times I got the job.

Illegal? Yes. But since I could use in it my favor, I did. I wonder if I could have gotten even more interviews if I put "FOREVER CHILD FREE" on the top of my resume?

Guest's picture
lucille

Asking any personal political leaning or affiliation is also illegal. I had an interviewer for a government job have the audacity to ask me point blank what my political affiliation was because the job was an appointment job. As soon as she asked the question she sort of back peddled and mentioned it was illegal for her to ask that and I didn't have to answer. Then she sat there waiting for a response. I responded with my ability to operate in a professional manner and used examples of working with a very diverse client base in the past to try to show my ability to work around areas of conflict. But honestly for me when she asked that question the interview was over. It was very clear they wanted someone with a specific political leaning in the job. If I was of that leaning or not I would not want to work somewhere that put politics before qualified staff.

Guest's picture
Dave

I love people who waltz in with their comments presenting completely incorrect information as fact. In the Unites States, it is completely legal to inquire about an applicants political views or party afilliation during an interview. Although there are numerous references on the web from supposed people of authority that state otherwise (like the fools on About.com) as a Senior Partner specializing in employer/employee law at one of the largest law firms in the country, I can 100% assure everyone that this is a legal question. Very simply, party afilliation is NOT a protected class.

Guest's picture

As a job seeker it's important to keep your cool and try to take these questions in stride. Many people you speak too will not be "professional" interviewers - in many cases they are just as nervous about the interview process as you are. Sometimes people will ask "Do you have children at home?" when what they are really interested in is your available hours.

It's important to remember that you are talking to a human being - not the company they represent. Steer away from accepting illegal questions, but do be understanding of errors (within reason).

Guest's picture
Debbie M

I have not been asked an illegal question, but I've thought about what I would do if I were asked such a question.

I decided that if possible, I would assume the person didn't know the question is illegal and say something like, "Actually, that question is illegal. But you're probably trying to figure out [some work-related issue], and I can assure you that this would not be a problem.

Now for the person who interviewed Lucille and actually knew the question was illegal, that wouldn't work. I'd still try to get at their real fears somehow.

I like the ideas in this entry better. They're similar and definitely better for some situations.

Guest's picture
Phedre

Where I work, it's way more important to find someone who is a personality fit. We have lots of people who have kids, but they're adults with kids. Sometimes we get superparents - ALL THEY WANT TO TALK ABOUT IS THEIR KIDS. Ugh.

It tends to alienate our younger crowd fast, then the regular parents, until they get upset and feel like an outcast. It's happened four times, and the last time I tried explaining to the person that if he just talked about world events, or even offensive topics like politics or religion he'd feel more included, but he told me point blank "My only interest is my kids." So, if I can't ask it, how to I let my applicant know what kinda crowd we are so they don't hate working for us?

"We all have interests outside of children... and don't think potty training is a great lunch topic. How d'you feel about that?"

Guest's picture
Guest

wow. I definitely would not want to work with you.

Guest's picture
Robert in SF

I am curious, although I think I know the answer:

Is it truly illegal to *ask* these questions around the mentioned statuses (parentage, age, etc.)?

I don't believe it is...it's just illegal to discriminate against the person based on the attributes.

So even if they don't directly or indirectly ask certain questions, and if you think that they may hold your actual status against you, then be even more careful of your answers to unrelated questions, especially the "tell me about yourself" opener...

I agree with the earlier poster who mentioned that discrimination may be based on the believe of how you will fit with the company, its culture/environment, and their believe in how it will affect your commitment to the job; of course, it could also be a prejudice of the interviewer against (or for!) certain status that causes their using your status in their hiring decision.

Just don't get your ire up immediately if they seem to ask a "illegal" question...the could just be a badly trained interviewer.

I would consider having some role-playing interviews with colleagues and have them work in some questions of this direct and round-about nature for you to practice deflecting with the approach they have a legitimate concern (to them) and your return of the topic back to your qualifications...

If you think they are concerned with your commitment (perhaps for parents, or health status), then tell war stories of long days/nights, weekend duty, work from home, etc.

If it's more of an race, religious, or orientation centered "issue" for them...good luck! That's almost impossible to deal with overcoming prejudice in an interview...

Guest's picture
Olivia

I'm not sure where this falls. But here's a rather round about, quirky, way of matching personalities to a job, as a resume actually lists qualifications. Have the job seeker hand write their application out and get an expert to do a personality analysis from the handwriting. A cousin's husband in pro sports used this method to weed out the "me first" and dangerously agressive players from the 300 or so wanting the job. I've also heard of personality tests being used to find matches in close knit working situations. Apart from actual skills, this seems to be the most important thing at a job.

Being sensitive to the needs of a company is not a bad thing either. A newly married friend was asked if she intended to have children soon. The company had lost two previous employees for that particular position. They had been trained at company expense only to leave in a year. A big financial hit for a small outfit. So as another poster mentioned, address the reasons behind the questions.

Guest's picture

A notorious one when being interviewed by a church is for the church reps to ask you how your wife sees your ministry and even how she sees herself being involved in your ministry. This lends itself to looking for a two-for-one, and I've seen churches discriminate on the basis of whose wife they thought would be more involved and that's the minister they hire!

Philip Brewer's picture

Normally you want to be really careful about lying on a job interview.  

Although most employment in the US is "at will" (meaning that they can fire you for any reason, or no reason at all), there are a few prohibited reasons--race, religion, etc.  If a company wants to fire you for a prohibited reason (trying to organize a union, let's say), they will, of course, try to trump up a legit reason--but that's complex.  If they just made up some reason--coming in late or poor quality of work--then they'd have to fake up the documentation for that, or else they could lose in court when you sued for wrongful dismissal.

One easy out for them is lying in your job application materials.  If they can find any false statements in your application or resume, that's a safe reason to dismiss you--even if the real reason is illegal.

I'd say, though, that false answers to the illegal questions are safe, as long as you don't put the answer in writing.  (It's okay if they document it in their own notes.)  To use a false answer as an excuse to fire you, they'd first have to admit that they asked you an illegal question, and then they'd have to admit that they used illegal criteria to make the hiring decision.

So, if you're pretty sure that you know what answer they're looking for, I think it's perfectly safe to lie when answering this sort of question.

Of course, a job that you need to lie to get is probably not forward progress on a long-term career. 

Guest's picture
Guest

I was once interviewing with an attorney for a clerical position at his office of 2 attorney's and another secretary.

I was asked if I was going to have more kids. The implication was that he didn't want someone out of the office for doctor's appointments.

I shrugged it off, after all, what was I going to do, SUE him?

I got the job.

A year later, when it came time for cost of living wage, he told me his wife was pregnant with their 5th child and he needed a new roof on his house. His house was a mansion. I lived in a trailer.

I left a week later.

Ugh.

Guest's picture
Guest

Two points. First, interviewing is a two way street. Most people seem to forget this. The individual is interviewing the company as much as the company is interviewing the individual. Being asked illegal questions should be a big red flag. Such questions present a danger to the individual. What else, of a questionable nature, would be asked or demanded. That being said, #3 above makes a good point. Many interviewers are not trained or educated in the requirements involved in interviewing. I've had to interview people for several companies, but I've received had no training in interviewing. As an engineer, interviewing others is not a normal part of our education. On the other hand, if the interviewer is in H.R. or management and asking questionable questions, then consider carefully the organization and the commitment to law abiding behavior as well as ethics or morals.

Guest's picture
Guest

I interviewed with a company several years ago and everyone that I talked to during the interview process asked me "if I had any constraints that would prevent me from business travel". Since this was a 100% office job, they clearly wanted to know if I had kids or personal committments that would keep me from working round the clock. I took the job, but only worked there 6 months, it wasn't a great fit for me, but it was during a previous time when jobs were scarce. And, in the 6months that I worked there, I never travelled even a single day out of the office.

Guest's picture
lucille

Employers are good at lying about who they are too. They will misconstrue what is included in a job role, why a previous employee left, what the company culture is like etc.

Like others said your interviewing them too. If you feel they are not being totally honest or just telling you what they think you want to hear it is a good sign that you should walk.

Guest's picture
Guest

I just sat in on a day of interviews for a secretary position in our office. It was a first for me and I was appalled at how many of the applicants subscribed to the TMI school of talk. The last one went on and on about her church. After she left and we compared notes both myself and other staff member were convinced that while she had the creds for the job, her born again attitude scared some of us. We were all very careful about what we asked and you won't believe what the applicants blurted out.

Guest's picture

Illegal questions are almost always asked-- especially by smaller employers . . .

If it seems harmless let it go, if it seems abusive-- you probably want to get up and walk out. Think about it, if they are abusive in an interview, imagine working for them . . .

Guest's picture
Guest

The closest to an illegal question was one that I was asked after I was offered a job. The interviewer asked if I had children, but it was in the context of "would you like to here about our great dependent benefits?" She immediately back-pedaled. And no, she wasn't HR, just a VP for a small company.

I took the job.

Guest's picture

I hadn't thought about "illegal interview" questions before, but this is a great piece and something to keep in mind for future interviews. Even though I haven't been subject to this during an interview, I think that for some position potential candidate can be weeded out based on certain qualities. For example, for an academic position that requires a lot of involvement and time commentment, the university will probably choice to interview younger, unattached individuals without children over older (relatively) ones with a young family, when looking at all qualifications similar and basically equal. I've seen that scenario moreso as a pre-interview selection process.

Guest's picture

I have never been asked any of these illegal questions, but I do wonder that in the case I do get asked, how one could respond to it, what if the question is asked with good intentions and just the interviewer trying to get to know you better or make you feel more comfortable? Anyway thanks for the great article, really helpful! If you have a moment please also check this list I compiled of the 50 most commonly asked interview questions, why they are asked, any hidden motives and exactly how to answer the questions!
http://www.australiaworks.com.au/interview-tips/50_job_interview_questio...

Guest's picture
Rob from DC

Certainly there are illegal things to ask. However, there are the gray area questions that could be used against an employer. These questions would be lead a "reasonable person" to conclude that the employer was attempting to categorizes a potential employee into a protected class and then discriminate against them based on the answer. If you can document it, you could sue and win (maybe).

The real question is, do you really want to work for a company that doesn't want you there? Your just going to get fired as soon as they can figure out a way to get rid of you.

I suggest being polite, not lying, maybe taking money from the bastards, and continuing to look for a less hostile job environment.

Guest's picture

I was fascinated by this article and responses. I had never before considered the illegal nature of interview questions. I agree that many interviewers are not trained on illegal questions but likewise applicants are not trained in answering them. In the excitement of an interview I'm sure I would be the person who blurts out way more than necessary to answer the question. On this blog though I have plenty of time to respond.

As I read, I thought of some funny responses that would probably come across as snarky in an interview.

q: "do you and your new wife plan on having kids?"
a: "I don't see how that would matter for the qualifications you posted online, however some ads I have seen on TV lead me to believe their easy to make, was the company looking for some kids?"

q: "Do you have children at home?"
a: "Yeah I usually leave them at home for interviews, I'm sorry was I supposed to bring them with?"

Unfortunately with illegal types of questions the company can have good reasons for concern over any answer. Without knowing what answer they are looking for there is no way to answer "correctly".

We go through school and get evaluated by tests that have right answers. In my expereience interveiws have answers that connect you to the company and and that separate you from the company. The interviewer wants to see personality and confidence that will fit in with the environment. You were called into the interveiw because you already had qualifications.

Being funny is dangerous in an interview because there is a large chance it will not be funny and cross the etiquette line. However since the interviewer crossed the illegal line I say go for the laugh to disarm an immediate follow up question.

follup up: "I'm not sure you know that question was illegal, but I am happy to answer what you probably were trying to get at, so please be honest with me has their been a problem with (kids, age, religion) before? If I share a similar circumstance with other people who have had that problem, I can prove to you right now that I can be professional about it"

Guest's picture
Guest

Thank you for a concise and well-written piece on this important subject. You deliver the information without hyperbole and your style is enjoyable to read.

Guest's picture
Guest

A colleague of mine asked an interviewee "What's your personal situation?", and I reprimanded him for it after the interview. Unfortunately, rather than not answering, the interviewee divulged a lot of very personla information, and my colleague thought it was great to have this info come out. I told him it was an illegal question, and he asked me to "show him" where it is written that this specific (and I mean specific) question cannot be asked. I know that you cannot ask questions that do not pertain to job performance, but would like to have the specific legal reference as to why this question cannot be asked. Can someone out there help me out?

Guest's picture
AW

@post 21 just because a question is not specifically written out does not mean that it is not illegal. Think of sexual discrimination, not every single thing you could say or see is written down, but if it is construed as the same in nature as the way the law was written you are liable.

Also for everyone else, as someone who did professional interviews for a living, you should never ask questions not directly related to the job.

Asking if they mind a certain amount of travel is legal especially if the job requires it. Asking their family situation is not legal, any way you word it.

Just because you are being interviewed, does not mean you can not ask questions. If they ask a question that is illegal and they seem to be genuinely uninformed, ask them what is it they want to know from that question, if you don't like their answer, end the interview and keep searching.

Also make sure if the company talks in generalities, you get specifics. A company that brings up that they are in line with industry pay may be speaking out of turn, if they are bringing up pay nail them down to a range, especially if this is a second interview. I once had a business owner tell me that he paid above industry average, but when it came down to figures he actually paid only 60 to 70% of what the industry average was, even bringing into account the cost of living for the area.

Remember these people are who you are going to be spending at least a third of your day with Monday through Friday in most cases. Make sure your job is the best fit that you can have within reason.

Guest's picture
Guest

I have been to some interviews recently. In some of these cases, employers already some on in thier mind (friends), but interviewed some potential (I guess) to keep in line with laws. To me, it is not ethical since those of us who are looking for a job are tight in cash but we still drive 1 hour in our own expense to appear for interviews only to sense that, it was merely a formality for thier HR to keep some applications on file.

Regardless, we have to be positive and keep on trying. But employers should not toy around with people

Guest's picture
H Lee D

One small error in this post: in most of the US, sexual orientation is NOT a protected category.

I'm glad I have never (so far) had to deal with questions that I believed were inappropriate in an interview!!

Guest's picture
Kalyan

It is all about demand and supply. Right now employers hands are up and workers hands are down ironically for no fault of theirs. Till the market turns around it is important to suck up as much as you can. I have had not one but three abusive, invasive and degrading interviews. I tried to bring the focus back to the job specification and role definition. You should however decide after the interview whether this is the kind of organization culture you want to be associated with. I have now enrolled in an MBA. At the end of the degree I hope some balance will be restored to the job market and I get more dignified and genuine offers.

Guest's picture
abcd

I'm a legal alien and unfortunately i get asked illegal questions in almost every interview. regarding my country of origin and regarding how did I come to the US.

I'm frustrated and don't know how to deal with this.. I just didn't get another job and the interviewer did indeed ask me two illegal questions..

Guest's picture
Guest

One time I was asked if I knew any other native americans who were looking for work. The HR Director actually said for demographic purposes, "We need to get some more of those." My jaw about dropped.

Guest's picture
Guest

Can you be asked if you are on any state assistance?

Guest's picture
Souljourn

Interesting article and all the discussion stemming from it.

It's really tricky if you're in need of a job and such a question is posed to you. In today's job market (at the time this comment is written anyway), interviewers are looking for any reason to write you off the list and go on to someone else. Not answering a question to their satisfaction give them exactly the opportunity they need to do that.

Not too long ago I was interviewing for a really good County job. Before the interview, I was presented with a document that I was meant to sign, stating that I would be willing to waive all my rights in order for the County to undergo a thorough background investigation. I had to excuse myself to sit down and read the document first, due to its derogate nature. As I read on, it proposed that I excuse the County from any wrongful or illegal actions that might be generated from their investigation into my financial records; previous employer and/or work colleague interviews; as well as any criminal investigations that they might come across. - WOW! This was intense and the position was not even a high-profile position, but rather, a Graphic Designer position. While I don't have anything to hide, I'm also not willing to give anyone that kind of free range over my personal information and so I simply ran a line over the document and wrote "declined". After having returned the document back to the admissions desk, I was escorted to an office for the interview.

The interview went really well with the interviewer expressing considerable excitement over my capabilities and their application to the position. Given that I didn't grant my permission to investigate me as they were asking on their form, I wasn't really sure how to accept the interviewer's interest. Weeks later I found out that I did not get the job (which I really needed and would have helped financially). Was it due to my not giving them permission to investigate me untethered? I will probably never know -- just as not answering any illegally-posed question might prevent someone from actually getting the job. So, what is the "real" solution to answering an illegally-posed question? Are we now in an economy that we give up all our rights to any potential employer? What kind of leverage would that provide them or any unscrupulous individual obtaining such information?

Guest's picture
Guest

It seems to me that, as the interview wasn't conditional on you signing the waiver, you could ask the interviewer something along the lines of "would you mind if I checked this document over with my lawyer and got back to you?".

If the waiver is technically illegal (and if the interviewer knows this) they may backpedal or withdraw the waiver. If you are prepared to seek a lawyer's help you may be able to return it back to the interviewer with conditions of your own, or at least advice on the legality of certain questions or whether your privacy is being compromised.

I'm not based in the US, but with job offers here I have always been advised to seek legal advice on whether to take a role or not. For me this could (should?) extend to include all documentation, not just a formal offer of employment. That said, I have also been asked by employers to sign permission for them to check criminal clearance checks, credit checks (looking for potential dishonest employees?) etc, and I have taken these as standard whether they are or not as they seem reasonable to me.

The waiver to excuse your employer from "any wrongful or illegal actions that might be generated" sounds pretty suspect, though!

I'm not saying any of this from a position of authority, of course, and I'm not sure the above may help you get the job at any rate!

Guest's picture
rebecca riley

I actually had a recent interview in which I told the employer that I needed to have one day to go in a check on a medical problem and would that be an issue? She actually asked me "do you have a thyroid problem?" which actually threw me for a loop. The ironic thing is, my thyroid was removed two years prior so not only did I not have a problem, I didn't even have a thyroid!" I kind of glossed over the question telling her it needed to be removed because they found a small amount of cancer and it was all good now but, truthfully, it did throw me a bit and I will be that much better at the next interview if something odd like that happens again.