What to Do if You Encounter an Illegal Interview Question

You’re acing the job interview. You’ve been personable, you’ve laid out your qualifications deftly, and you even made the recruiter laugh with a well-timed joke. Things are going incredibly well until the recruiter asks you a question that feels…off. He poses it with a professional demeanor and as though the question is perfectly normal, but something about it is just too invasive—too personal.

illegal interview questions

If this experience sounds familiar, you’re not alone. We’ve all had moments in interviews where we’ve questioned the validity of a certain question and with good reason. Some questions are illegal. But since lawyers don’t sit in on job interviews, these questions get asked regardless of their legal standing.

To help you with future interviews, let’s discuss how to tell if a question is illegal and what to do if you encounter one.

Illegal Inquiries

Different states have different laws regarding pre-employment inquiries, so you may need to do some additional research on your own. For our discussion, we’ll be sticking to the federal guidelines set forth by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

According to the EEOC, pre-employment inquiries should be limited to determining a person’s qualifications—that is, job-related skills, experience, and behaviors. The following topics shouldn’t come up as they are typically irrelevant to such a determination:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Sex
  • Age
  • National Origin / Birthplace
  • Religion
  • Marital Status/Number of Children
  • Gender
  • Disability

Such questions aren’t limited to explicit inquiries, either. Questions that may indicate any of the above should also be avoided, such as asking what holidays you celebrate or what organizations you belong to.

There are nuances, of course. For example, if you’re applying for a position as a bartender, then—depending on what state you live in—you may have to be at least 21 years old. While a recruiter can’t directly ask you your age, they can make it clear you’ll need to provide proof of your age if you are offered the position. Same goes for citizenship.

And since we’re talking about the law here, let’s be very, very clear. Questions about race, religion, gender, etc., aren’t technically illegal. They are, however, ill-advised as such questions may be “used as evidence of an employer’s intent to discriminate,” and intent to discriminate is absolutely illegal.

Handling An Illegal Question

Now that we know what questions are illegal or professionally prohibited—what should you do if you encounter one? You have a few options:

Answer the question. Just because a question is prohibited doesn’t mean you can’t answer it. It’s up to you. According to one study, recruiters favor applicants that share their religion. While it certainly isn’t fair, simply answering a question that hints at your religious affiliation could possibly help you chance of landing the job.

Redirect the question. If you’re asked something like, “How do you think a woman could manage this team effectively,” drop the pretext. Focus on how your skills and experience will make you the best choice, and don’t reference your gender.

Ask for clarification. Remember that all questions should be limited to determining job qualifications. Sometimes all it takes is asking the recruiter to clarify how the question relates to the job. Hopefully, he’ll recognize the unintended bias in the question, apologize, and revise it accordingly.

Decline to answer. Some questions simply can’t be reworked, such as “Do you have children?” or “Where were your parents born?” If you don’t want to answer such a question, you can simply respond, “This does not affect my ability to perform the job.”

Report it. You can contact your local EEOC office to schedule an interview and to file a complaint. There are time limits for such filings, so if you take this step, do it sooner rather than later. Whether or not you seek legal advice beyond filing a charge is up to you and will depend on the circumstances you faced.

Before deciding which option to choose, recognize the difficulty of confronting such a question in a high-stress situation like an interview. Don’t let your emotions take control; instead, take a deep breath, center yourself, and decide the best option based on your analysis of the situation.

Also recognize there’s a very good chance these questions aren’t coming from a conscious bias on the interviewer’s part. Chances are the interviewer either hasn’t been trained to interview properly or hasn’t fully considered the implications of what he is asking, especially if that person isn’t a member of human resources. Unless you have good reason to think otherwise, give him the benefit of the doubt and respond professionally. If you do feel the question comes from a place of discrimination, calmly end the interview and leave.

It is never easy encountering an illegal interview question, but if you’re prepared, you can use the opportunity to make a strong first impression and show that your professionalism and knowledge make you the right person for the job.


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