Handling Illegal Interview Questions
Jim, 48, is
sitting in an interview, which has been going well. He's
confident that his qualifications match those of the position,
and he believes he'll fit into the corporate culture. As the
interview is winding down, the interviewer casually asks: "Will
your family mind the relocation from
New York to Texas?"
How should Jim answer this question?
There are several questions that employers may not legally ask
applicants. Federal law attempts to ensure that candidates are
hired on job qualifications and not by prejudicial criteria.
Questions structured to obtain information on race, gender,
religion, marital status, age, physical and/or mental status,
ethnic background, country of origin, sexual preference, or any
other discriminatory factor are generally illegal as grounds
for making employment decisions.
With few exceptions, these factors contribute nothing to your
ability to perform a job, and an employer must substantiate
those cases where a direct relationship is thought to
Anything that is not a bona fide occupational qualification
may not be covered directly, although the interviewer may seek
the information indirectly.
So, how do you handle an illegal interview
First it is
important to assess the intentions of the interviewer.
illegal interview questions are asked in true innocence -- or,
better stated, in true ignorance: ignorance of the law,
ignorance of what questions are proper, and ignorance of how
the information could be used by others in a discriminatory
most illegal questions are asked when the untrained interviewer
is trying to be friendly and asks a seemingly innocent question
about your personal life or family background.
any attempt by the candidate to assert his or her
constitutional rights will merely throw up the defense shields
and put an end to any future consideration for employment.
Warning lights go on, sirens sound, and the interviewer begins
backing down from what otherwise may have been a very
So what is the proper response?
Any response depends on the particular situation and the
personalities and motives of those involved, but overall you
have three basic options:
(1) Answer truthfully if you feel your response will not hurt
the interviewer that the question is illegal and risk offending
them and ending your chances for the position;
(3) Base your answer on the requirements of the job and your
ability to perform it.
Here are a few examples of casually asked illegal questions and
Q: Does your family mind the travel required for this
A: I am accustomed to significant business travel. In fact, I
find being on the road invigorating, and my track record has
been very consistent under these conditions.
Q: Are you religious? Will your religion prevent you from
working extra hours or on weekends when we have a big
A: I suppose everyone is religious in their own way. I do not
foresee any circumstances that would interfere with the quality
or commitment of my performance.
Q: You have a very unusual last name. What is its origin?
A: It really is a mouthful, isn't it? I've always used my
first name and last initial in my business e-mail address, as
it is easier.
Q: Are you planning a family in the near future?
A: Currently, I am focused on my career and although having a
family is always a possibility, it is not a priority at the
Q: How many more years do you see yourself in the work force
A: In today's world people don't retire like they used to;
some can't. My career and my need to earn an income are
priorities that I do not foresee changing in the near future.
choose to handle these types of questions depends on the
perceived motivation of the interviewer as well as your desire
to have the position. However, no matter how badly you want or
need a position, always keep in mind that if a company is
capable of asking illegal questions before you are an employee,
there is a greater potential for mistreatment after you are
bet is to try and keep the interview focused on the
qualifications of the position and your qualifications as a
Blatant discrimination does take place. If it does and you are
offended, you have the right to end the interview immediately
("I don't think we're a good match. Thank you for your time.")
-- You never wanted to work there in the first place!
So, how did Jim in our example above answer the question? He
could have said, "It's none of your concern," which likely
would have quickly ended a promising interview.
But Jim thought about the underlying intent of the company in
asking the question, which was "Will relocating an employee who
likely has a family be so troublesome that he/she will be
unproductive for months?" Considering that, he might have
responded, "My family and I are committed to my career, so
relocation is absolutely not a problem."
But Jim's family of five was used to moving every several
years because of his ascending career, so Jim responded: "I've
moved my family every three years, and they always consider it
a great adventure. I've talked to them about the possibility of
this move, and they're very excited."