When you’re interviewing for a job — and particularly one you really want — it can be tempting to tell your interviewer everything they want to hear. But some seemingly innocent questions can actually be inappropriate (and often illegal).
First things first: An interview is about your qualifications for the job
Understanding whether a candidate fits a certain position and the company culture is a primary task of employers throughout an interview. Along with aptitude assessments, screening, and testing, questions are a key evaluation tool for HR teams and hiring managers. Yet, there are some fine legal lines between what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to job interviews. The general rule of thumb is anything you’re asked should relate to your qualifications for the job in question.
At a high level, regulations around interview questions and employment decisions are designed to protect potential employees from discrimination unrelated to their ability to do the job. Some jobs have mandatory qualifications, referred to as Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications (BFOQs). These may initially seem out of line but are valid in the context of a certain employer or role.
Asking someone’s age, for example, is generally off-limits. However, it may be permissible to ask airline pilots as broader safety regulations exist around this. BFOQs are related to hiring based on age, sex, race, national origin, or religion. Most tech roles, however, shouldn’t come with any BFOQs so a feeling of discomfort is more than likely signals an inappropriate ask.
What’s actually off-limits?
Companies are not allowed to make hiring decisions based on any of the following (excluding in the case of BFOQs):
- Marital and family status
- Race or color
- Birthplace, nationality, or ancestry
- Salary history (in some places—check your state and city regulations)
While many seemingly innocent questions appear to be the interviewer’s attempt to get to know you (and may well be!), answering questions about your family status, religion, etc. may unfairly bias your interviewer and distract them from the real topic at hand: whether you’re the best candidate for this role.
Be prepared to answer questions related to education, work experience, motivation, personal qualities, and future career plans. Be wary of questions violating personal boundaries. Employers are actually not entitled to ask such questions, and you do not need to answer them. As a jobseeker, this right is protected by the law.
Whether you’re being asked maliciously or not, here’s your guide to handling inappropriate questions if they come up in an interview.
1. Are you married?
It’s unlikely you will come across such a direct question. In fact, all questions related to a candidate’s marital status are technically illegal. However, some employers might overstep boundaries and ask about plans for marriage or work after the birth of children. This could be in an attempt to tease out answers about a candidate’s commitment to the company in the future.
How to respond
In order to shift the conversation back to a work-related topic, you can respond with:
“I’m not quite ready yet for this discussion, but I’m very interested in career development in your company. Could you tell me more about this?”
This will demonstrate your motivation and commitment to career growth, while simultaneously setting boundaries.
2. Do you have children? If not, do you plan on it?
Often, employers ask probing questions about family in a misled attempt to understand the candidate as a potential employee. Women, for example, receive questions about having children amid a common stereotype about employees with small children taking more time off and sick leave.
To some candidates, this question is unacceptable and discourages them from working with a team where personal boundaries are violated.
How to respond
One of the possible answers:
“Yes, I do. However, I’d prefer to keep this conversation focused on my professional skills”, or “I know it can be challenging to find the right work-life balance. However, I can assure you I do not allow my personal life to interfere with my professional duties.”
3. What was your salary in your last job?
A potential employer can discuss with the candidate financial issues relating exclusively to salary expectations for the position the company is interviewing.
The employer does not have the right to share information about wages at the previous place of work. Currently, it’s illegal for some or all employers to ask you about your payment history in several cities and states. It’s called a salary ban.
What is a salary ban?
Salary history bans are policies preventing employers from asking about a candidate’s previous salary. The bans aim to reduce pay discrimination in hiring decisions and are a step toward promoting equal pay.
Jobseekers may rephrase the question regarding salary expectations into a current salary negotiation. Candidates can also share a figure of their expectations if they think it will work in their favor.
How to respond
“I’m not comfortable discussing my salary history, but I do know my target salary for this position is X amount” or “My previous employer was very strict about privacy and security. Thus, I’m not entitled to disclose information about the salaries they offer.”
4. How would you handle managing a team of all men/women?
Unfortunately, gender discrimination is still far too common in the labor market. It’s especially visible through wage inequality. While there are myths and stereotypes related to “male” and “female” professions, and the ability to perform certain jobs, interview questions related to these matters remain taboo.
During interviews, employers may ask candidates to prove their ability to perform tasks they believe are appropriate for members of the opposite sex. In this case, candidates should focus all attention on their achievements and results.
How to respond
In this case, we advise dropping the gender aspect and focusing on your managerial skills in an answer. For example:
“I’m very comfortable in a management role. In fact, in my last position, I managed these responsibilities well for over a year.”
5. What country are you originally from?
Many employers may have trouble hiring employees who are legally prohibited from working in the country. This has led companies to take tougher measures in finding out more about the origin of future employees.
But the only legal way to find out is to ask directly: “Are you legally allowed to work in this country?” Phrasing the question as “Where were you born?” or “Where are you from?” and making citizenship inquiries are illegal.
According to a CareerBuilder and Harris Poll survey of more than 2,100 hiring and Human Resources managers, about 20% unwittingly asked candidates illegal questions in an interview.
How to respond
Candidates can gracefully evade this by saying: “I have lived in different places, but by law, I have the right to work in this country.”
6. What religion do you practice?
The employer does not have the right to demand an answer about which church you go to or whether you go at all.
If you do decide to answer this question, pay attention to how important it is to the interviewer. Ardent adherence to a certain idea may indicate an unhealthy atmosphere in the company.
How to respond
You can note you have your religion, but also respect that of others. To eliminate the abusive effect of this question, you can say: “I’m certain I’ll be able to work the schedule you need for this position, so no worries.”
7. Do you have any physical impairments or disabilities?
Some companies require future employees to submit medical certificates about their health status. It can be a measure of concern for potential employees.
But employers cannot be interested in your well-being and chronic health problems in the interview out of idle interest — to estimate how often you will take sick leave, for example. This information is confidential and only applies to you and your doctor.
Candidates can disclose their disabilities in advance if they feel comfortable doing so. If you are curious about disclosing a disability in the job search, read this guide.
How to respond
“I believe I have all the necessary skills and abilities to fulfill the responsibilities related to the role.”
At the end of the day, innocent-enough intentions are behind most interview questions. However, illegal or inappropriate questions may be a red flag in regard to the company’s HR professionalism and culture as a whole. Directly answering them can violate your personal boundaries and/or lead to discrimination. Don’t feel obligated to answer questions that detract from what matters: your qualifications, interest in, and ability to do the job.
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