When it comes to job interviews, honesty (okay, maybe enhanced honesty in some cases) is the way to go. But what if the interviewer is asking you questions they have no right to ask? Out of ignorance or slyness, an interviewer might try to get information out of you that the company is not allowed to factor into their hiring decisions. However, you’re not obligated to answer them—and in fact you shouldn’t.
Your battle plan should be to figure out why they’re asking (whether it has direct consequences for the job itself), and to decide whether you should answer. In most cases, the answer is “no,” but there are ways to redirect the conversation and/or call attention to the inappropriateness of the question without alienating the interviewer. After all, it may just be someone talking off the cuff without realizing it’s actually illegal to talk about certain personal issues. Some of the hardest interview questions you'll encounter might be illegal.
Here are some examples of illegal interview question areas, and how to get around them.
1. Religion/Race/Sexual Orientation
Do you volunteer with your church? That’s an interesting last name, what’s your background? These questions all sound pretty harmless…just making small talk, right? Yet each one gives away information known as “protected class.” Employers are prohibited by federal and state law from hiring (or not hiring) based on categories like race or ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Talking about topics like your church (or lack thereof), your spouse, or your family’s ethnic background can give information that could tip the interviewer against you if there’s a bias involved. Even if it happens in a pre-interview chat, before you get down to the brass tacks of the job itself, you’ve given information that the interviewer had no real right to ask.
The way to handle this is to redirect the question. If you refuse to answer, even though you’re in the right, it could set you up as “combative” or disagreeable in the eyes of the interviewer. It’s okay to be vague and try to channel the conversation elsewhere. On church activity: I do volunteer at my local soup kitchen—I like to give back to the community when I can. On family background: Gotta love the American melting pot, right?
You have a pretty long and distinguished resume, do you see yourself retiring soon? Age (particularly 40 and up) is another protected class. If an interviewer tries to get information about how old you are, he or she might be trying to suss out whether you’re likely to be a long-time employee at the company…or whether this job is a pit stop on your way to the golf course.
You should never feel obligated to give your age. Instead, take the chance to re-emphasize your commitment to the job for which you’re interviewing: On the contrary, I’m looking forward to talking about a long and productive relationship with this company, and bringing the fruits of that experience to my work for a long time to come.
3. Family Status
If you’re pregnant, have children, or may want children some day…doesn’t matter. An interviewer is not allowed to use your family status as part of the hiring decision. Even if you’re eight months pregnant in your interview suit, he or she can’t ask when you’re due, or about your childcare plan afterward.
In a case like this, the best tactic is to try to push it back on the asker. Without being overly antagonistic, it’s okay to ask, Can you help me understand why that matters? I just want to make sure I better understand what this job entails.
4. Whether You’ve Been Arrested
Convictions are fair game for interviewers and job applications, but arrests (without convictions) are not. Even that’s starting to change in some places: New York is looking at phasing out employers’ ability to ask about particular kinds of convictions. For now, however, convictions are askable, but arrests are not.
If you’re asked, have a simple response ready to go (taking too long can trigger the kind of reaction you’re trying to avoid): I have never been convicted of anything, no. And if you do have a conviction, it’s essential to remember not to lie about that, because a background check would likely uncover that information.
5. Your Military Service
I see from your resume that you’re in the National Guard. Does that take up much of your time? Employers are not allowed to use active military service as criteria in hiring. Basically, the interviewer can’t factor in your military service at all. If you choose to answer this one, emphasize that you’ve never had a problem balancing your service with your career.
6. Disability Status
If you don’t mind my asking, how did you get in that wheelchair? Will you be on crutches long-term? I see you have glasses—is that a pretty strong prescription? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is pretty clear—employers are not allowed to discriminate against employees that may need physical accommodations. Instead, they are allowed to ask if you would need any specific accommodations to do the job.
If it seems like the interviewer is fishing for information about a disability, deflect it. Are you asking whether I would need special accommodations? Or, I’m not sure I see how this relates to my ability to analyze sales reports—can you clarify and help me understand?
The most important thing to remember is that if you feel uncomfortable, you don’t have to answer—but you also don’t have to disqualify yourself by putting up a defensive wall or walking out of the interview. It’s fine to call attention to the reasons behind asking (in as non-confrontational a way as you can manage), then try to segue back to the interview and job description as quickly as possible.
If you have concerns about any of the areas outlined here, definitely check with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and know your rights as an applicant.
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