Illegal Interview Questions

How To Handle Illegal Interview Questions

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In a perfect world, candidates would only be asked questions that are 100 percent legal. Unfortunately, job seekers have to deal with illegal interview questions all of the time. It’s very easy for an interviewer to go into those illegal areas without even realizing it. Sometimes, interviewers are untrained and don’t realize the error of their ways, and sometimes they just mess up.

Either way, candidates should know their rights and responsibilities about what can and cannot be asked in an interview. Here’s a brief summary of topics that may come up during an interview, what can legally be asked, what can’t, and how to handle illegal interview questions:

Family Status

Legal question: Do you have any responsibilities that conflict with attendance or travel requirements?

Why this question is legal: The position requires the person filling the job to have regular attendance and the ability to travel. This question pertains to the job duties.

Discriminatory questions: Are you married? Do you have children? Are you pregnant?

Why these questions are illegal: The questions have no bearing on whether or not the person can perform the job.

Race

Legal question: None.

Discriminatory question: What is your race?

Why this question is illegal: The EEOC protects people from discrimination based on race. A person’s race does not impact one’s ability to do a job.

Religion

Legal question: None.

Discriminatory questions: What church do you attend? What is your religion?

Why these questions are illegal: The EEOC protects people from discrimination based on religion. A person’s religion does not impact one’s ability to do a job.

Residence

Legal question: What is your address?

Why this question is legal: Prospective employers may ask a candidate’s address to correspond with the person during the interviewing process.

Illegal questions: Do you own your home? Do you rent your home? Who lives with you?

Why these questions are illegal: A person’s residence has no bearing on whether or not he or she will be a good employee.

Gender

Legal question: None.

Discriminatory question: Are you male or female?

Why this question is illegal: The EEOC protects people from discrimination based on gender. A person’s gender does not impact one’s ability to do a job.

Age

Legal question: If you are hired, can you provide proof that you are at least 18?

Why this question is legal: Some employers are only able to hire candidates who are legally adults. If this does not apply to your workplace, you shouldn’t ask this question.

Discriminatory questions: How old are you? When is your birth date?

Why these questions are illegal: The EEOC protects people from discrimination based on age. A person’s age does not impact one’s ability to do a job.

Interviewers are allowed to ask candidates if they have ever been convicted of a crime, but they may not ask if they have been arrested. The interviewer should inform you that the conviction will be considered only as it relates to the ability to do the job. For example, many positions require security clearances. Depending on the type of convictions, a candidate may have difficulty in obtaining a security clearance.

An interviewer may also ask if a candidate can show proof of eligibility to work in the United States and if the candidate is fluent in any other languages other than English. However, the candidate may not be asked if he/she is a U.S. citizen.

If you’re in an interview and the interviewer asks you a question that you know is illegal, try to steer the questions back to something that’s a little more job-related. In most cases, interviewers aren’t intentionally trying to ask illegal interview questions, so a friendly reminder may be all that’s needed. If you still feel uncomfortable after the interview about the questions you were asked, be sure to share this with the recruiter or HR professional who arranged the interview.

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29 comments

  1. Ask away, I have nothing to hide, if you don’t like me after the interrogation/interview, then don’t hire me, because I wouldn’t work 5 minutes in some place where I wasn’t welcome. I think if you DO have something to hide, then maybe you’re sensitive about interview questions, which raises more questions. Hey, be honest, everybody. No lies, no secrets, if you can’t do that, either as an employer or an employee, well…?

    • I work with disabled Veterans and my response to your question is it can’t be addressed unless it is an obvious disability and them in must be addressed in term of the job requirements such as can you perform the major functions of this position with or without an accomodation

  2. It is interesting that this post is linked from the Linked-In professional networking site, and that Linked-in encourages its members to post their pictures with their profiles online. Employers can see the pictures even before the hiring process starts, making it very easy for them to discriminate against applicants based on age, race, gender, etc., and then being the savvy hiring managers they are, construct a plausible alternate explanation about why certain people are not contacted for an interview or are not hired.

  3. I don’t understand the first section. Isn’t that question essentially just asking the others in a roundabout way? Why is it ok to ask about general family commitments that may interfere with work, but it’s wrong to ask specifics? I understand that simply being married is not an interference so I agree that that shouldn’t be a factor, but having children can be a huge impact on someone’s ability to do their job. I guess I just don’t understand why asking so generally is a bad thing if you’re going to either get A. people lying and saying they don’t or B. the same answers as if you asked specifically. If you ask about general family commitments and answer “Yes, I have a 5-month-old who requires my care,” how is that any different from being asked “Do you have children?” and answering the same way?

    • Because those judgements can not be made based simply on whether one has kids or not. The legal question asks only how this or other responsibilities may inhibit you from doing your job. I know many people who have excellent, reliable daycare, and have many close by or in-home relatives that care for the child in your absence or in the event that they become ill. There are others that don’t have that support. But when you ask the legal question, you’re only asking if any of their responsibilities (be it a child, disabled husband, senile mother, night classes, etc) would impact their job. Everyone’s home life is very different. If you ask me if I’ll be able to (and comfortable with) travel to China for a week every month, I’d be able to say yes (even though I have two children). If that’s a lie, the employer is covered by saying it was a misrepresentation.

  4. I have a question and would like advice and opinions.
    I would like to know how to properly handle and respond to comments the interviewer makes that go against ones own rules. I think silence is a mistake because even if I know I don’t have to do things his way…..my silence can be taken as “agreement ” or willingness.
    So as a random example…say the interviewer Braggs how all his picks are top scorers/get top grades in training. Say he goes on about how his is the top team. Then the next things that comes out of his mouth is that he provides all the answers for hw and tests.
    Now hoping my jaw didn’t make too much noise hitting the floor, how would I tell him I don’t learn that way? I like to work with classmates and share understanding and earn my achievements? I mean, should I shut up and just do it my way…since he can give me answers all he wants…and I just will file them away and do it the way I can live with and be proud of regardless of his standards…this is no different than college. Such things are accessible and all around us, but is no temptation to students seeking understanding and strong foundations.
    What or how should one respond in such a situation??????
    Next how does one politely respond to a male interviewer that comments I might want to cook the “guys” dinner as that’s the way to a man’s heart??????
    I applying for a job…to be one of the “gals” that WORK with the guys as a partner…..equal…..teammates ….I am not seeking a husband….I don’t even cook.
    Ugh. I am a non traditional student that graduated recently and I am being interviewed by a younger generation. I need advice on how to respond to such things. Its a new world for me.
    help.

    • You could politely tell him that you are quite intelligent and will perform above average without any
      Help. You need to respond for two reasons: this could be his way of testing your integrity and two if he seems offended by your response you should reevaluate working for him. You want to work for an individual you can trust and respect.

      • I think you are right. I should have picked my jaw up off the floor and told him I earned all my rewards, honors, and degrees. I share understanding….not answers. Plus…I do not cook. If I do not cook for my husband, I damn sure will not cook for coworkers. If I can’t earn respect with my knowledge, work ethic, and communications skills then I am at the wrong job site!
        Thanks so much!
        Gayle

    • Remember that an interview is as much you interviewing them as it is them interviewing you.

      “[H]ow would I tell him I don’t learn that way?” – Exactly the way you said it. Do you really want to work for that kind of company/boss?

      “Next how does one politely respond to a male interviewer that comments I might want to cook the “guys” dinner as that’s the way to a man’s heart?” – You politely thank them for their time, and then politely get up and walk out. If they ask you why, you poilitely tell them that you don’t want to work for misogynists, or an organisation that enables them.

    • Perhaps one way to “politely respond to a male interviewer [who] comments I might want to cook the ‘guys’ dinner as that’s the way to a man’s heart” is to ask, “And what is the way to a woman’s heart?” Try to listen to whatever creepy thing he says, and then say, “Well, the way to my heart is for a guy to treat me and think of me as an equal partner in every way.” That’s what I would like to think I would say if I were a woman. (I know this is a ridiculous statement, but there you have it.)

      • No, thanks. I need to know what other people think to help me on future interviews. I am applying for field jobs that mainly men work within.

  5. Rachel Armont, SPHR

    Actually, there are instances that you can ask these questions. Bonefide occupational qualifications (or BFOQs) such as requiring a female applicant to fill a urine specimen collector role (particularly for direct observation testing), for example. Churches and private schools may ask your religion. Employers with AAPs can ask your gender, race, or ethnicity to maintain compliance.

    Each one of these questions can be legally asked in certain circumstances. Applicants should know their audience before lambasting the hiring manager for asking a question.

  6. It doesn’t seem as though a number of these questions even have to be asked to be nonetheless taken into account in a hiring choice.

  7. The question should not be on whether it is legal or not but on the proper way to treat an applicant. Legal does not always = fair or appropriate.

    The heading of this article is misleading and provides very little guidance on “how to handle” inappropriate interview questions. If an applicant is asked questions that do not seem relevant to the job it is perfectly acceptable for the applicant to say “how is this related to the position?” or “help me understand how this is relevant to the position?” and then to follow it up with highlighting the experience relevant to the position. After the interview, I would not wait to see “if you feel uncomfortable” but report it to the company’s HR department as it is important for an organization to be aware of how they are being represented.

  8. THANK-YOU, Alison for pointing out a major pet peeve! Perhaps some don’t think the distinction is important, but IT IS. (Especially for those of us that deal with legal matters in the course of our professions).

    The act of asking a question – as irrelevant, inappropriate and unfortunate as these examples may be – IS NOT illegal. What IS illegal is using irrelevant information obtained (through Q&A or otherwise) to make employment decisions. That is what counts as discrimination.

    It is quite disturbing that entities, publications or authors portraying themselves as SMEs continue to perpetuate inaccurate information. The word illegal has a specific definition and meaning just like every other word.

    Publishing content should require familiarity with terminology used and adequate subject-matter awareness to comprehend the difference between various word choices.

    • It should also be stated that this information is illegal to use in hiring decisions in the United States. Other countires have different perspectives and may absolutely require this info– even right there on your resume– and it is not considered illegal.

  9. I recently attended a focus group on impediments to employment among those with disabilities. Interviewers asking questions that are or approach illegality is one of the biggest fears, and the situation can be very different depending on whether the disability is apparent. Even then, the ADA requires employers to make “reasonable” accommodations for employees with disabilities, but that can be a touchy area to address before being hired. And whether questions about disability are asked outright or not, a job seeker will never know whether a decision not to hire was based on employer perceptions and assumptions of how a disability might affect job performance. The attempt to legislate job interview questioning as an way to guarantee fair hiring practices is practically pointless. Employers, if they know the law or not, generally are savvy enough to claim a more innocent reason behind any hiring (or firing) decision.

    • When there is a non-apparent disability (mental), is there a time when the prospective employee is obligated to disclose this to a future employer?

  10. Amanda, thanks for putting this out there. So many candidates are unaware of what’s appropriate and what’s not in terms of interview questions. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself, know when something is wrong, and understand how you can steer the conversation back to your professional history.

  11. Really Alison? Well there’s no point in having it be an issue then – we just need to make the questions illegal because proving they made that hiring decision on the basis of questions answered it’s about as unenforceable as age discrimination which is also illegal and completely out of control in the job market. Everyone know it goes on (but won’t admit it). You only have to look around at most of the long-term unemployed to come to a logical conclusion. Another great idea that doesn’t work in practice.

    • Joe,

      You’re absolutely right, particularly the widespread age discrimination practice.

      Indeed, about three months ago I had one of the best job interviews ever. Nailed every aspect of the job and built a lot of rapport with the interviewer. I even put together a strategic plan for the job afterwards.

      However, during the interview I was asked about my age, family status, number and age of kids, and residence address. I decided to play along and answered all of them, including my age (I am 52).

      To date the employer claims they haven’t hired anyone yet, although their goal was to fill the position by the end of march. I touched base with their HR department five times after the interview with the same answer and a promise that they will keep me posted, one way or another.

      Obviously, I have not addressed to HR my concerns about the interview questions as I did not want to raise unnecessary red flags. But at this point I feel discouraged and skeptical about working for that company. Even worse, I don’t believe there’s anything else I could do except waiting for an unlikely surprise and continuing my job search.

  12. Sure, most people know those are not necessary “illegal”, but actually “inappropriate” questions. But what can you do if on a face-to-face interview you were actually asked some of those questions, even if asked in a friendly manner, AND in the end you don’t get the job? Can you file a complaint with the EEOC? Any other legal recourse? Even if you do something about it, what are the odds of getting back on the recruiting process considering an already damaged relationship? Can you seek monetary compensation?

    • Jorge, actually most people don’t know that the questions aren’t illegal, in part because articles like this one keep repeating that they are! It’s bad information that should be corrected.

  13. Amanda, these interview questions are not actually illegal. Making a hiring decision based on the answer is illegal, but asking the questions themselves is not. Check the EEOC!

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