Dealing with the stress of a job interview is difficult enough without having to maneuver around questionable and even illegal interview questions — but many potential employers still ask them.
It’s helpful to go into every interview fully informed of your rights and what is — and isn’t — considered off limits. Indeed, some questions about race, gender, religion, age, heritage, birthplace, parenthood, disabilities, etc., can be illegal.
“Questions that ask specifically or indirectly about protected characteristics of a person are not allowed to be used in employment decisions,” says Gail Farb, an employment and labor attorney at Williams Parker Harrison Dietz & Getzen in Sarasota, Florida.
Even though the law might be on your side, refusing to answer some questions can send the wrong message.
Knowing how to respond by answering the questions in a helpful way can help hiring managers and potential bosses get an idea of who you are and what you will bring to the job, without revealing too much about yourself.
Protection against illegal interview questions — some precedents
Some interview questions are illegal because they might yield answers that could lead to discrimination against a candidate.
Several federal acts provide protection from illegal interview questions including:
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964: Prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967: Protects applicants and employees age 40 and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge or compensation.
- The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978: Prohibits sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions.
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990: Prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in areas of public life, including jobs and hiring.
Some states and cities have additional restrictions on other questions. In some areas, marital status, sexual orientation and other information are protected characteristics.
Interviewers often do not ask the same questions of both women and men.
“I don’t know what the statistics are, but it is probably likely that a woman is more likely going to be asked about children, and either having them or caring for them, than men,” Farb explains. “Traditionally, women are the caretaker more often and obviously, only women can physically have children. Anyone can adopt and anyone can become the primary caregiver or shared caregiver.”
Sometimes, the interviewer might not know what they can or cannot ask, or they might have a genuine interest in making small talk. Understanding an interviewer’s intent could help you decide how to proceed.
“If you just look at a person, some of the [protected] characteristics are obvious. It’s the ones that are not obvious, that sometimes get employers in trouble,” Farb says. “They may be curious about something or just being friendly and trying to strike up a conversation and not necessarily trying to discriminate against an applicant. That can get an employer in trouble.”
A few common tricky questions
The person interviewing you for a job is trying to determine if you’d be a good fit both for the job and for the organization.
Knowing things like where a candidate lives, age, availability, national origin, financial situation, education, marital status, disabilities or military status could reveal a lot about the candidate. It’s the way some interviewers ask questions that is a major problem.
Interviewers can legally ask how the job’s responsibilities would impact your life, including if there are any restrictions that would prevent travel, etc. They can also ask about availability, including an ability to work odd schedules or weekends.
Figuring out true intent, though, can be difficult.
“The perception of the applicant is maybe that something is unlawful, whereas from the employer side, it may not be,” Farb advises. “Sometimes it may be the way the question is asked. While something might be perceived by a [potential] employee as a unlawful, it may not actually be, so I wouldn’t assume that the employer is intentionally trying to discriminate against that applicant or others based on unlawful means, and I wouldn’t assume the employer was trained well and knows how best to ask questions.”
How to respond
The first thing you need to do if an interviewer asks a tricky and possibly unlawful question is to try to figure out the intent of the question. Show professionalism and do not overreact.
“I would NOT suggest an applicant accuse the questioner of making an illegal question unless the applicant really doesn’t care to have that job anymore, because it will not end well,” Farb says.
A brief answer could set limits and provide some information without revealing too much. If the interviewer is persistent, asking how the question relates to the job might be an appropriate response.
Answering the question behind the question and turning the answer towards your skills and strengths might give the interviewer what they are looking for.
“I would say, if you’re asked a question that you are comfortable in answering, you can answer it, that’s up to the applicant,” Farb says. “If it makes the applicant uncomfortable, I would say to divert the discussion to something else if at all possible.”
Farb also suggests asking a question about the company or the job as a way to steer a conversation away from an unlawful topic.
Many people face questions about resume gaps when deciding to get back into the workforce after staying at home.
Highlighting the fact you were fortunate enough to have the choice to focus on your family can be a way of approaching this one.
Many parenting skills are also good job skills including self-motivation, ability to focus, attention to detail, multitasking, and problem-solving skills.
Potential employers are trying to make sure your skill set is up to current standards and that you have the skills necessary to jump back into working outside of the home.
Connecting transferable skills is again helpful here. Make sure to highlight volunteer or freelance work you have done as well as workshops you attended.
Balancing work and family obligations
Interviewers are looking for dedication to the job. Assuring them your entire family is supportive of your decision to work is a good way to respond to any questions about balancing work and family life.
If the job requires travel or working flexible hours, volunteering the information that you’re available to leave town and work extra time can address the concerns interviewers might have about the delicate balance between career and home life.
Interviewers cannot ask you about your marital status, if you have children, are planning to have children, or are planning to have more children. They can ask if you have any commitments that might prevent you from working assigned shifts.
Interviews cannot ask directly about your religion. If you think they are asking about weekend or other availability, answering a question about church attendance by saying you do a variety of activities on the weekends, but you are available to work the schedule that goes along with the job is an effective way to sidestep this question.
Asking about ethnic background directly isn’t allowed, but asking if you can read or write English is allowed.
If you are fluent in other languages and feel that is a skill that will enhance your chances of getting hired, volunteering that you can speak, read, and write additional languages is a way to answer a question about ethnicity.
Interviewers cannot ask about citizenship, but can ask about eligibility to work in the U.S.
Since age discrimination in hiring isn’t allowed, potential employers cannot ask your age or when you graduated. There is an exception if age is a requirement for the job, for example being at least 21 in order to work in a bar.
Because of possible age discrimination, many professionals advise not putting graduation dates on resumes since it is easy to figure out your age based on that information.
Especially if a job involves working with money, potential employers might want to know about your finances.
They cannot ask if you have filed for bankruptcy or if you own or rent your home. They can ask how long you have been at your current address and how long you lived at a previous address.
Interviewers cannot ask you if you own a car, but they can ask if you have a reliable way to get to work.
If an interviewer asks you a question about your finances, you could simply respond by saying personal finances do not impact your ability to the the job.
Potential employers cannot ask directly about a disability, and if they do, asking about the functions of the job and reassuring the interviewer that you’re capable of performing them all can help you get around this type of question.
In some situations, it might be advantageous for an applicant to volunteer certain information. For example, if you’re getting married and need time off for your upcoming wedding, volunteering that information might be in your best interest. The company might have a no vacation policy during the first few months of employment, just when your wedding will happen, so you will need an exception to a company policy.
“If the applicant raises it for a valid reason, even if the applicant raises it for no reason whatsoever, as long as the employer doesn’t hire or not hire based on the unlawful reason, it’s okay,” Farb says.
But be careful with the information you volunteer.
“If the applicant brings up topics that the employer is not supposed to ask about, or brings up information and shares it, the employer can definitely listen to it,” Farb says. “Oftentimes, an applicant will raise things that the employer was never going to ask but the applicant throws it out there. So, the best thing for the employer to do is listen to whatever the applicant is going to say, and then transfer that conversation into something that is more focused on the job.”
What to do if you feel uncomfortable
Only you can know your comfort level about answering certain questions during a job interview. If questions are overly offensive or an interviewer won’t give up if you try to sidestep, you might need to decide if you want to work for that company at all.
“If the applicant still wants the job, the applicant could mention to whoever the hiring person is — the HR director maybe — that, ‘I really liked your company, but I was asked some questions that made me feel uncomfortable,’ and then let the HR person take it from there,” Farb advises. “If the applicant wants, they can go to a government agency that is set up for this type of complaint. This is not likely going to get the job for this applicant, but it may change the employer’s questioning for the future and train the employer to do things better.”
Tiffani Sherman is a freelance reporter based in Florida.