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Diffusing Illegal Interview Questions

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 5.40.50 PMA newcomer to the job market recently told me about an interview he went on in which the interviewer asked him the origin of his last name. The question caught my attention because it is actually characterized as a potentially discriminatory interview question which could by construed as prejudicial. However, as in many interviews, questions such as this are typically asked in innocence by an untrained interviewer. Ignorance of what questions are proper or how information could unintentionally be used by an employer in a discriminatory way is not uncommon.

Sometimes, a job seeker will find him/herself in an uncomfortable situation wondering about the intent of the question. When that happens there are three choices, especially if it is a job you want:

  1. answer the question
  2. refuse to answer the question, (which may seem confrontational or uncooperative particularly to the untrained interviewer), or
  3. consider the interviewer’s intent and reply as it might apply to the job

For example, if you are asked if you are a U.S. citizen (an illegal question), you might respond in a way that satisfies what the interviewer probably wanted to know, as in “I am authorized to work in the U.S.”

A 2015 nationwide survey by CareerBuilder of 2,100 hiring and HR managers reported that 1 out of 5 employers had unknowingly asked an illegal interview question.

Federal law ensures that job applicants are hired on bona fide occupational qualifications. Questions about age, disability, gender, national origin, race, religion or sexual preference are improper and are considered illegal as grounds for making employment decisions. However, ironically, when an illegal question is asked, it is often done so by a naïve or forgetful interviewer trying to be friendly and simply making conversation. Try not to become defensive if you find a question to be awkward and think about your answer. Of course, if you are truly offended, you have every right to terminate the interview and leave.

Here are some examples of inappropriately asked questions that were well handled by the job candidate. For the most part, the job candidates believed that no malice was intended and simply answered confidently, smiled and side-stepped the interviewer’s inappropriate query.

Q: This reads that you left your last job to have a family. Do you have childcare arrangements?

A: There’s nothing to prevent me from meeting deadlines or the responsibilities you’ve outlined.


Q:   Do you smoke? This is a non-smoking building.

A:   I understand. It seems like that’s fairly standard these days.


Q: I know you rescheduled your original interview because you were sick. Your health okay?

A: I’m sorry that happened. I pride myself on meeting my work commitments. I had excellent attendance at my last job.


Interviewers might need to review their standard questions to be sure that even those that sound innocent are not asked.   Here are just a few that might be meant as introductory small talk, but are actually unlawful.

  • So, do you have kids? How many?
  • What an unusual name, what does it mean?
  • I know that school, what year did you graduate?

Most experts agree that the job candidate’s best option is to evaluate the intent behind the question. If in doing so, if you feel you want to continue to pursue employment with this organization then you should provide a tactful answer without sacrificing your rights or embarrassing a misguided interviewer.   Illegal questions can add greater stress to an already stressful interview, but the job seeker who is aware of what’s right or wrong, has every chance to diffuse the situation, take control and respond in the way that suits him or her best.

For more interviewing guidelines, refer to the CareerOneStop Business Center, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor.

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