How to Respond to Illegal Interview Questions

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In order to protect job applicants from discrimination, several topics are considered illegal during job interviews in the U.S., and should be carefully avoided.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (among others), forbid employers to ask job applicants questions about race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) resolved 90,558 charges of discrimination in 2018 and secured $505 million for victims in private, state, and federal workplaces.

Ample preparation before an interview will give you the confidence and information to maximize your success under pressure, but it can't prevent a sloppy or malicious interviewer from asking illegal questions.

The Interviewer’s Intent

Employers don't always broach illegal interview questions in a direct manner; they can deliberately or accidentally phrase questions that are neutral or seemingly innocent. That's because they face serious trouble if they follow discriminatory recruitment policies. Laws in the U.S. stop interviewers from invading your privacy, but sensitive questions still arise in one form or another. How you proceed depends on:

  • The intent of the interviewer
  • Their perceived reaction if you decline to answer
  • Your desire for the job

Before you take offense and point out that a certain question is illegal, consider the interviewer’s intent. Is it possible they're inexperienced and aren't aware of the legalities involved? They should be familiar with recruitment procedures, but this doesn’t always happen.

Could the hirer have a genuine interest in you while making small talk? For example, "What a beautiful ring, are you engaged?" If you suspect the interviewer is only being curious, you don’t have to reveal your personal details. Answer if you feel comfortable, or sidestep the question in a diplomatic way. Remember, even in casual situations, the interviewer is treading on dangerous ground.

When employers have negative experiences with recruits and are trying to prevent future headaches, they may ask prying questions. If the interviewer is a supervisor, instead of an HR representative, they might be unaware of the legality of their actions.

Legal vs. Illegal Interview Questions

Interviewers can ask questions with a direct link to the job or to legal requirements, and how a question is specifically worded can make a big difference.

Asking a candidate how long their family has been in the U.S. is illegal; whereas asking if an individual is eligible to work in the U.S. is appropriate and prudent, given that it’s illegal to hire employees without the correct documentation. Interviewers can't ask about your planned arrangements for child care, but they can ask if you're available to work a nine-to-five schedule.

How to Respond to Illegal Interview Questions

When you face illegal or inappropriate interview questions, be diplomatic in your response. You won't get hired if you misread the interviewer’s intentions and overreact. On the other hand, they may want to see how you handle delicate situations, so here’s the perfect chance for you to demonstrate your professionalism and tact.

Give brief responses as a way to set limits on any topic that seems inappropriate and navigate all answers toward your specific qualifications for the job. If the interviewer presses you for more, politely mention you’re happy to answer their question but aren’t sure how it relates to the job (this gives them a chance to explain or rethink their line of questioning).

If the employer asks you something you find incredibly offensive, reconsider whether you want to work for the company, and file a complaint with the EEOC. The commission states:

"A charge of discrimination is a signed statement asserting that an employer, union or labor organization engaged in employment discrimination. It requests EEOC to take remedial action."

Keeping Your Interviews Legal

Laws exist to protect the rights of the workforce from discrimination, but these statutes can't prevent recruiters from trying to bend the rules. Illegal questions can often be asked absentmindedly, especially in informal conversation, and you must use discretion when deflecting sensitive topics or confronting a potential employer on their inquiry.

If you're passionate about the job, you may consider giving leeway to the company or interviewer. Redirect borderline conversation to what matters most: your ability to excel in the role.

Article Sources

  1. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "EEOC Releases Fiscal Year 2018 Enforcement and Litigation Data." Accessed Feb. 24, 2020.