Illegal Job Interview Questions: Know Your Rights as a Candidate

Illegal interview questions are one of the trickiest issues one can run into when applying for a job. Under most circumstances, an interviewer is not legally allowed to ask questions which are designed to reveal personal information such as your religion, marital status, or your age, just for a few examples. Unless the question has a strict basis in occupational qualifications (and sometimes even if it does), it's quite likely that it violates state and/or federal laws.

What is illegal to ask in a job interview?

Specifically, questions about the following are illegal to ask in an interview:

  • Applicant's age
  • Place of birth
  • Any existing disabilities
  • Martial or family status
  • Race or skin color
  • Religious beliefs

Unfortunately, not all interviewers abide by these rules, for one reason or another. It may be a matter of inexperience, lack of awareness, or simple disregard for the rules as they are set in place. Ultimately, though, the responsibility rests with you as the interviewee to determine the purpose behind the question and respond gracefully.

Understanding the Question

It's important not to jump to conclusions or assume the worst if faced with a question that seems like it could be illegal. Wording is everything when it comes to sensitive subjects and the last thing you want to do is come across as the type of person who's looking for problems. Consider the following two examples:

  • "Do you have children who are in school?"
  • "Are you able to work a nine-to-five schedule Monday through Friday each week?"These two questions are obviously quite different on the surface, but could be asked for the same reason. The first of the two is technically illegal by most standards, although you can still respond effectively without calling out your interviewer simply by responding as though you were asked the latter question instead. This allows you to provide the information that the interviewer was likely to be seeking without appearing confrontational.

    Other Effective Responses

    While you shouldn't feel obligated to continually submit to illegal questions during any job interview, keep in mind that there's always potential for misunderstandings. An interviewer who has asked only for appropriate job-related information but then inquires about your military service might not realize that it's an off-limits subject; he or she might've simply been asking a casual question out of personal interest.

    Regardless, bluntly halting the interview by asserting that a question is illegal to ask can make it difficult to continue comfortably. You have a few options at your disposal, but they really must be utilized on a case-by-case basis. It's important to use your best judgment to gauge the purpose of what's being asked, and consider employing one of the following types of responses:

  • If the question doesn't make you feel uncomfortable, you might simply take it in stride. If you know that you're well-qualified for the position and you've had a great interview until a particular subject came up, you're doing nothing wrong by answering honestly—if that is indeed your preferred course of action.
  • You might instead opt to steer the conversation in a slightly different direction and hope that the interviewer takes the hint. If you're asked, for example, when you graduated high school, you might avoid providing a direct response and instead use it as a stepping stone to briefly discuss a similar job you worked during your senior year.
  • At your discretion, you are always in position to politely state your concern that a specific question appears to be illegal and decline to answer it directly. Remember to take this approach with a great deal of tact if you do feel it's necessary, as it can make the rest of the interaction awkward or difficult.Think of your job interview as a general test of your ability to think on your feet. Just as you might have to respond to questions which just seem strange or unrelated to the work itself, you might be faced with questions which catch you off-guard because they appear to be illegal. Since you can't know whether your interviewer is fully aware, assuming that the question was simply a misstep will likely put you in a better position to succeed.

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LiveCareer Staff Writer

LiveCareer Staff Writer

At LiveCareer, we live and breathe the belief that we can help people transform their work lives, and so do our contributors. Our experts come from a variety of backgrounds but have one thing in common: they are authorities on the job market. From journalists with years of experience covering…

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