Body shot of two recruiters in suits conducting interview, candidate in foreground and out of focus

Dealing with Inappropriate Interview Questions

May 10, 2018

​At some point in your career, you may be asked an interview question that's just wrong. It might pry too much into your personal life, be unrelated to your qualifications, or be outright illegal. Read below for some tips on recognizing and responding to these questions.

Question Examples

Below are a handful of example questions to watch out for. Many of them are illegal due to anti-discrimination laws. These laws state that interviews should only be a tool for measuring job qualifications. Questions about the things below often lead to discrimination.

To read more about these laws, check out Workplace Discrimination and the EEOC.

Gender

Not only are these questions banned, they simply have no place in an interview. Interviewers should never assume that your gender will affect your ability to do the job. Watch out for questions like:1

  • "How would you handle managing a team of all men?"
  • "Do you think a woman can do this job effectively?"
  • "Would you work well with a female boss?"

Marital or Family Status

Employers can't ask you about personally sensitive info surrounding marriage, family, or living situation. These questions aren't related to your suitability for a job and can invite biases into the interview. Also, some of these questions can reveal private info like sexual orientation. Here are a few examples:1

  • "Are you married?"
  • "What does your wife do for a living?"2
  • "How old are your children?"
  • "What arrangements are you able to make for child care while you work?"
  • "Explain your financial status – do you rent or own a home?"6

Citizenship or Nationality

Employers can only ask if a person can legally work in the U.S. Direct questions about where they're from or where they were born are illegal. A few examples are:

  • "Where did you live while you were growing up?"2
  • "Are you a U.S. citizen?"2
  • "That's a beautiful accent. Where are you from?"1

Language

The employer doesn't have a right to know whether a language spoken is your first. It doesn't matter what language is your first as long as you're fluent in the language required for the job. Besides, the interviewer doesn't need to ask about English fluency; they can simply tell from the interview itself. A few examples include:1

  • "What is your native language?"
  • "Is English your first language?"

Age

Asking directly about age is not appropriate for an interview because age isn't relevant to job qualifications. This also includes questions that can't be answered without implying age. A couple of examples are:1

  • "When did you graduate from high school?"
  • "When did you graduate from college?"4
  • "There is a large disparity between your age and the other employees currently holding this position. Is this a problem for you?" (This is inappropriate because it's based on the idea that older and younger people cannot work together.)

Religion

Employers can't ask directly about your religious views. A few examples of this include:1

  • "What religious holidays do you observe?"
  • "Do you go to church on Sunday mornings?"

Interviewers who ask this usually don't mean any harm. Many employers want to respect a person's beliefs and make accommodations for them. They are aware that some people have religious beliefs or traditions that prevent them from working on certain days. However, directly asking about religion is a loaded question. Instead, employers should ask you more open-ended questions about when you're available. Instead, they should ask something like "Are there any days or times when you are not available to work?"

Disability

These questions are banned under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law made disability discrimination illegal, which includes asking questions about it in interviews. This can also include asking questions about illness, medical history, or related things.2 Health-related questions are only allowed if they're directly related to job qualifications. Here are some example questions:

  • "Do you have a visual, speech, or hearing disability?"2
  • "How often do you drink?" (These types of questions are banned because they affect recovering alcoholics. People who are getting treatment for addictions are covered under the ADA.)
  • "Do you have any illnesses we should know about?"6

Non-Work-Related Organizations

Employers should not ask if you are a member of a specific political, religious, and other non-work-related organizations. Also, they should not use them to make a hiring decision. For example, employers should avoid questions like, "Our organization supports the Republican political party. Do you have any issues with that?"6 Chances are, these things don't relate to the job at all. Because of this, it's better to keep them out of interviews.

What to Do

During the interview, ask yourself whether each question is suited to the job you're applying for. Watch for any red flags or moments where a question doesn't "feel right."

Also remember that employers sometimes ask these kinds of questions innocently. This sometimes happens with newer interviewers who don't realize that they're inappropriate. A good example is the "accent" question from earlier. While it's clear that the interviewer was just curious, it's still illegal.

Here are some points to keep in mind when dealing with these types of questions.5

  • Keep calm and don't jump to conclusions. Try to understand why the question is being asked and how you can respond appropriately. If you're unsure why the interviewer is asking the question, be sure to ask politely.
  • You have the right to refuse to answer illegal questions. If you choose this, stay calm and professional about it.
  • You can also choose to answer honestly. No matter how you answer, make it clear that you're still a great fit for the job. Let them know that you're excited to work for the company.
  • You may be able to use the question as a starting point for talking about your qualifications. For example, if the interviewer starts asking where you're from, you could tell them about your international work experience. You can do this without answering the offending question directly.

Interview questions can tell you a lot about company culture and even ethics. If a question sends up a red flag, think about whether the company is right for you. If you feel "othered" during an interview, that may be a sign that you'll feel that way on the job as well.5

 

Sources

1 https://www.themuse.com/advice/5-illegal-interview-questions-and-how-to-dodge-them

2 https://law.yale.edu/student-life/career-development/students/career-guides-advice/inappropriate-interview-questions-how-handle-them

3 https://www.thebalancecareers.com/job-interview-questions-that-are-illegal-1918488

4 https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/inappropriate-interview-questions/

5 https://www.monster.ca/career-advice/article/how-to-respond-illegal-interview-questions

6 Illinois workNet Interview Builder

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