Illegal Interview Questions: What If They Ask ...?

The interview process is governed by state/provincial and federal laws that determine what constitutes an inappropriate or illegal interview question. The guidelines are usually available from the Human Resources Department of the hiring company or your state/provincial legislator or department.

Interview questions should be job-related; they should not used to obtain personal information. Some of the most stressful questions are actually illegal. Such questions can make the interviewee angry, especially if they are obviously illegal. However, this situation is a catch-22. If you choose not to answer these questions based on the fact that they are illegal, it could unfairly cost you the job. This is something you should prepare for prior to the interview. 

For example, if the interviewer asks an illegal question, your first reaction may be to respond, "That's illegal and I'm not going to answer." Stop yourself. It's best to give the interviewer the benefit of the doubt. There may be a logical reason for the question, or the interviewer may not know that the question is illegal. If you realize that you are being asked an illegal question, don't be defensive and create uncomfortable feelings. However, keep in mind that if you answer the question, it releases information to the employer that you might want to remain private.

Here are a few examples of illegal questions and how to answer them.

Do you have children?

You could respond by saying, "Yes, I have three children: one, three, and six years old." However, you need to consider the true purpose of the question. The hiring manager may be trying to find out what distractions you have in your life, because a parent may need more time off than a person who does not have children.  Parents need time off for children's doctor's appointments, sick days, and unreliable childcare arrangements, and the employee/parent may be unable to work overtime or weekends. This is not necessarily true, but it is what many hiring managers think, especially if they don't have children. They may not offer you the position, thinking that you will have too many distractions or obstacles in your personal life. An appropriate answer to this question is, "Yes, I do have children, however, I can guarantee you that my childcare arrangements are exceptional and I have my mother as a backup in an emergency."

Here are some other examples of illegal interview questions:

  • What is your age/date of birth?
  • Does your religion allow you to work on Sundays?
  • What is your political affiliation?
  • How is your health?
  • Does your family approve of your travel?
  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • Do you speak English at home?
  • Are you divorced?
  • Is that Miss or Mrs.?
  • What race are you?
  • What is your native language?
  • Is your husband or wife employed?
  • How will you handle the long commute?

Most interviewers are just curious; they don't mean to be insensitive, and they are probably unaware that their question is inappropriate. They want to know about your work skills and professional experience so they can determine if you can do the job and they want to get to know you as a person. You need to ensure that your responses to these questions are positive, even if you are not giving an exact answer, because that is the only way that you will receive a job offer.

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