Handling illegal interview questions

One of my job-seeking clients recently had an interview in which the employer asked her a question about her race/ethnicity. It was for a position that required a lot of cross-cultural understanding, and my guess is that the employer wanted to know whether the candidate had the cross-cultural skills needed for the job. However, employers should know that such questions are illegal.

An illegal question could mean one of two things about an employer: 1. They are ignorant of basic interview rules and regulations (which could be possible, especially in small organizations without a good HR person), and they think that a job interview is the same as a friendly chat; or 2. They do know the rules, but are deliberately breaking them in order to potentially discriminate against candidates. I always hope it’s #1, but you never know. You have a few choices on how to answer such questions—you can say:

a) “That is an illegal question.” –this will probably end the interview and your chances at the job; but if you are truly offended by a question to the point that you would be thrilled never to work for this employer, you can end the interview this way, while doing your part to educate an ignorant interviewer about the law.

b) “Can you explain to me how this is related to whether I’m qualified for the job?”—this is a bit pushy, but helps re-focus the discussion where it needs to be.

c) “If you are concerned that I do not have enough bi-cultural sensitivity, please be assured that my years of international and cross-cultural experience has given me all the skills I need to communicate across cultures.”—This doesn’t answer the question about what your ethnicity is, but tries to guess (giving the benefit of the doubt that they are not asking your ethnicity in order to discriminate, but to see if you are qualified for the job) why they might be asking an illegal question, and to address the underlying concern they have.

How have you handled illegal interview questions?

Heather Krasna is the author of Jobs That Matter: Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service

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Stephen Peteritas

Gosh that’s a tough one. Being who and what I am I’d probably just answer the question but at the same time I can see why people shouldn’t ask it. I guess option C is the best for a person really wanting the job but at the same time it doesn’t change behavior and the question will be asked again to other candidates down the road.

Chris Bennett

I believe common sense on both ends usually works out fine, though it’s important to have specific laws in place to protect people from discrimination. For example, asking a young woman who just got married when she plans to have children is fishing for discrimination, but asking an older person a few questions about their spouse, kids, etc. with the intention of getting to understand the person better is unlikely to be considered offensive, even if it’s toeing the law. Your situation above I believe really depends on how the question was worded and in what context. If in the first minute you said to the candidate, “That’s a pretty accent. Where are you from?” it may be wise to answer something equally polite and not get defensive. That’ my take at least.

Big Picture Inc

Hey Chris,

I was in a situation where my (former) employer asked me if I had children and if I was married (or if I was planning on either in the near future). The interviewer explained that the open position involved working closely with him (the president/CEO) and that he would demand many long hours, which “wouldn’t work out for someone with a family life.” Because this was going to be my first full-time job and because I needed the money, I brushed these questions off with a smiley “no, I am not.” Later, I realized that there were many red flags in this interview and that I should have gone with option A.

If your employer does not take the time to recognize and/or respect your rights (or gets offended when you defend/inform her/him of your rights), then that is not the right employer for you. I think too many people (especially first-time job searchers) get “stuck” in awful situations because they are afraid of offending their bosses or because they need the money so badly that they overlook their own rights. I mean no disrespect to these individuals – I just hope articles like this help to spread awareness of this prevalent problem.

Also, I want to give a shout out to my current employer, Big Picture, Inc. for helping me to see that there really are good bosses out there!

Thanks for sharing~

Allen Sheaprd

The one that always bothers me is “are you married ?” This can be phrased as “What does your wife/husband do” , etc.

@tabitha, I understand the “Is child care an issue for you?” For me it came out when asked “Are your hours flexable?”, “Do you need certian days off?” etc. In the IT and Electrical field we often work after hours and holidays when users are at a minimum.

Here are a few quiestions -sould one go to an interview without their wedding ring ??

Do we have the right to ask them if they have kids? I’ve worked for those with kids and those without. A boss with kids has often been easier to work for.

Lastly “Do you take the bus to work?” For those in DC/NY that may not be bad. Where I live its a job killer.

@Stephen, I hope the same questions get asked to all the candidates.

Debbie Hopkins

If there are no major red flags in the way the question was asked, I don’t mind answering a question that might seem to have a hidden agenda…being honest is the best way to go. Echoing the sentiments of others: if someone chooses to discriminate based upon information gathered in this way, I don’t want to work for them anyway.

Big Picture Inc

@Debbie How can you be comfortable with answering a question with a hidden agenda, and at the same time not want to work for someone who discriminates based off of that agenda?

Debbie Hopkins

ATabitha, thanks for asking me to clarify. All I meant was, answer the question with dignity and grace, rather than getting nasty with the person. Take the high road, so to speak.

Carol Davison

This human being and HR professional prefers to believe that people are ignorant before they are malicious. In response to illegal questions such as are you married with children, respond “I am available to work nights and weekends” if its truthful, because they is the information they really want to know. 

If they are looking to screen you out based on your race, gender, faith, shoe size or want to hire their cousin, it’ is best that they do so during the interview rather than make your job hell. “Pity the fools” who do so because the many different perspectives to problem solving that diversity brings increase an organization’s producity.