Job interviews are awkward enough as it is, but they can get really uncomfortable when an employer starts asking questions that don’t relate to your professional background or skills. How should you respond when an employer wants to know if you have kids, whether you have a disability, or how long you’ve lived in the United States?
Knowing how to handle out-of-line interview questions begins with knowing which questions employers shouldn’t be asking in the first place. Employers are prohibited from discrimination based on race, color, national origin, or age. While questions related to these topics aren’t technically illegal, employers that ask them open themselves up to charges of discrimination, says the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Many employers haven’t gotten the memo that some questions should be off-limits, though.
“It happens more than they would like you to think,” Justin Hirsch president of Job Plex, an executive search firm, told Fox Business. “Human resource leaders are typically more careful and more straightforward, but other executives in the company may ask something unscripted that’s just on the top of their mind.”
Unfortunately, there’s no ideal way for a job seeker to handle an inappropriate interview question. Politely refusing to respond is one option, but it could take you out of the running for the job. Answering honestly is another option, but that could hurt you too, since you might reveal information that also leads to a rejection.
Sometimes, the best option is to be as careful as possible in your answer, doing your best to avoid sharing information an employer might use against you while attempting to provide the information the interviewer is really trying to get at (questions about children or disability, for example, might really be an inexperienced interviewer’s way of asking about your ability to work a set schedule.)
Here are 10 illegal interview questions and how to handle them.
1. “Are you a native English speaker?”
Employers aren’t permitted to ask questions related to your race or national origin. Yet interviewers may ask questions that touch on those subjects, like the one above, either out of ignorance or outright bias.
How to respond: Discuss your strong oral and written communication skills without getting into whether English is your first, second, or fifth language.
2. “Where are you from originally?”
Your accent or skin color may lead an interviewer to make assumptions about your personal background and citizenship status. They might try to verify those assumptions with a question like the one above, even though your ethnicity, race, or country of origin has no bearing on your ability to the job. An employer can ask if you’re legally allowed to work in the U.S.
How to respond: Provide a brief answer (“I’m from California,” or “I’ve lived a lot of different places”) and then steer the conversation in another direction. A statement like, “I’ve lived in New York for the past few years and I’m currently eligible to work in the U.S.” might address the interviewer’s concerns about whether you’re legally allowed to work in the country.
3. “Are you planning to get married?”
Employers asking this question might be fishing for information about your personal life because they assume a married man is more likely to stick with a job long-term or that single people will be more willing to put in long hours.
How to respond: Whether you’re married, engaged, or single is none of the interviewer’s business. “My focus is on my career right now,” is a tactful way to deflect this question without getting into specifics about your relationship (or lack thereof).
4. “Are you going to have kids?”
Unfortunately, women are more likely than men to get asked this question (or questions about whether they already have children) and face discrimination as a result. But whatever your gender, it’s illegal for employers to ask this any other questions related to your family and marital status.
How to respond: You can try to deflect this question by talking about how committed you are to your career. Or, you might explain that if you do decide to expand your family, your work will remain a priority.
5. “What holidays do you celebrate?”
A question about what holidays you celebrate could be a sneaky way for an interviewer to ask about your religion – a big no-no.
How to respond: Don’t feel pressure to reveal information about how you practice your faith if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. A response like, “I always make an effort to arrange my holiday plans and celebrations around my work schedule,” could address any concerns about your availability without revealing too much information about your specific religious practices.
6. “Do you go to church?”
Some interviewers won’t hesitate to ask you about how and where you worship. Unless you are applying for a job at a church or other faith-based organization, which are allowed to make hiring decisions based on religion, you shouldn’t have to answer this question.
How to respond: “I attend services regularly” might allow you to deflect this question without getting into specifics about your faith. Alternatively, you could politely say that you prefer to avoid discussing religion at work.
7. “When did you graduate from high school?”
Other than verifying you’re not a minor, your age should be irrelevant in the hiring decision. Most interviewers know that they can’t outright ask how old you are, but they may ask questions like the one above that will give them a rough idea of your birth date.
How to respond: If you’re not willing to reveal how old you are, a vague response and a bit of humor may suffice. If you’re obviously older, a response of “Too long ago!” can deflect the question without revealing your exact age. Younger workers might say something like, “Not that long ago, but I’ve been working hard ever since.”
8. “Have you ever been arrested?”
It may surprise you, but employers aren’t allowed to consider past arrests in hiring decisions. In some states, like New Jersey, they’re not even allowed to ask about convictions during the initial screening process (though they can ask you about this information later on).
How to respond: If you’ve never been arrested, just answer this question truthfully. If you do have an arrest record but no convictions, consider saying something like, “I’ve never been convicted of a crime” or “Nothing in my past would affect my ability to do this job.” People who have been convicted of a crime can contact an ex-offender advocacy group like New York’s Fortune Society for advice on navigating the job search process.
9. “How often do you call in sick?”
Questions about your health status, including how often you need to call in sick, are verboten. However, employers can ask questions that relate to your ability to perform specific job duties (such as lifting boxes of a certain weight).
How to respond: If you’d prefer not to disclose information about any health issues in the interview, try a simple statement like, “I try to limit how frequently I call in sick and only miss work when it can’t be avoided.”
10. “Have you ever used drugs?”
Employers aren’t supposed to ask about drug use in general, since you might feel compelled to reveal information about legitimate prescription drugs you take. Even questions about past illegal drug use are forbidden. An employer may ask if you are currently using illegal drugs, however.
How to respond: “I don’t currently use illegal drugs,” should address any employer concerns about your current drug use without getting into the specifics of any past illegal drug use.