How to Navigate Illegal Interview Questions

Martin Yate CPC
NY Times Bestseller
Professional Resume Services
Successfully navigating illegal questions on a job interview can be tricky. The line of questioning may take you by surprise, causing you to struggle for an answer. Or it may appear to have offensive intent so you respond negatively.
Your aim, however, is to overcome your discomfort and avoid appearing angry. You are there to get the job offer, and any self-righteous or defensive reaction on your part will ensure you don’t get it. Remember, you have the option to refuse the job the job once it is offered to you.

What is an illegal question?
Title VII is a federal law that forbids employers from discriminating against any person on the basis of sex, age, race, national origin, or religion. More recently, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed to protect this important minority.

  • An interviewer may not ask about your religion, church, synagogue, or parish, the religious holidays you observe, or your political beliefs or affiliations. He may not ask, for instance, “Does your religion allow you to work on Saturdays?” But he may ask something like, “This job requires work on Saturdays. Is that a problem?”
  • An interviewer may not ask about your ancestry, national origin, or parentage; in addition, you cannot be asked about the naturalization status of your parents, spouse, or children. The interviewer cannot ask about your birthplace. But she may ask (and prob- ably will, considering the current immigration laws) whether you are a U.S. citizen or a resident alien with the right to work in the United States.
  • An interviewer may not ask about your native language, the language you speak at home, or how you acquired the ability to read, write, or speak a foreign language. But he may ask about the languages in which you are fluent if knowledge of those languages is pertinent to the job.
  • An interviewer may not ask about your age, your date of birth, whether you are married or pregnant, or the ages of your children. But she may ask you whether you are over eighteen years old.
  • An interviewer may not ask about maiden names or whether you have changed your name; your marital status, number of children or dependents, or your spouse’s occupation; or whether (if you are a woman) you wish to be addressed as “Miss,” “Mrs.,” or “Ms.” But the interviewer may ask about how you like to be addressed (a common courtesy) and whether you have ever worked for the company before under a different name. (If you have worked for this company or other companies under a different name, you may want to mention that, in light of the fact that this prospective manager may check your references and additional background information.)

Don’t assume it’s intentional
As you consider a question that seems to verge on illegality, take into account that the interviewer may be asking it innocently and may be unaware of the laws on the matter. Even more likely is that the interviewer really likes you, and is interested in you as a person. When we meet someone new, often some of the first questions will be: Where are you from? Are you married? Have kids? What church do you go to? Bear this in mind so that you don’t overreact.

Your best bet is to be polite and straightforward, just as you would be in any other social situation. You also want to move the conversation to an examination of your skills and abilities, and away from personal issues. Here are some common illegal questions—and possible responses. Remember as you frame your answers to the odd illegal question that your objective is to get job offers.

What church/synagogue do you go to?
In most instances, an interviewer may not ask about religious beliefs. However, as with most illegal questions, it’s sometimes in your interest to answer.

You might say, “I attend my church/synagogue/mosque regularly, but I make it my practice not to involve my personal beliefs in my work.” Or, “I have a set of beliefs that are important to me, but I do not mix those beliefs with my work and understand this is something employers don’t want their people discussing.” If you do not practice a religion, you can still give the same answer.

Are you married?
If you are, the company is concerned about the impact your family duties and future plans will have on your tenure there. Although illegal if it is asked, it’s best to answer this question and remove any doubts the interviewer might otherwise have. Your answer could be, “Yes, I am. Of course, I make a separation between my work life and my family life that allows me to give my all to a job. I have no problem with travel or late hours; those things are part of my work and family obligations have never interfered. My references will confirm this for you.”

Do you have/plan to have children?

Most often asked of single women in their childbearing years. This isn’t any of the interviewer’s business, but he may be concerned about whether you will leave the company early to raise a family. Behind the question is the impact of absences on departmental deliverables. You could always answer “no.” If you answer “yes,” you might qualify it, “but those plans are for way in the future, and they depend on the success of my career. Certainly, I want to do the best, most complete job for this company I can. I consider that my skills are right for the job and that I can make a long-range contribution. I certainly have no plans to leave the company just as I begin to make meaningful contributions.”

If the questions become too pointed, you may want to ask—innocently—“Could you explain the relevance of that issue to the position?” That response, however, can seem confrontational; you should only use it if you are extremely uncomfortable, or are quite certain you can get away with it. Sometimes, the interviewer will drop the line of questioning.

Illegal questions tend to arise not out of brazen insensitivity but rather out of an interest in you. The employer is familiar with your skills and background, feels you can do the job, and wants to get to know you as a person.

Outright discrimination these days is really quite rare. With inappropriate and even illegal questions, your response must be positive—that’s the only way you’re going to get the job offer.

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Martin Yate
Copyright 2013
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