Handling Illegal and Inappropriate Questions

Based on the level of experience or training of your interviewer, you may be asked questions that feel inappropriate to the position or may be illegal.

Federal laws prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, and disability. Many individual states, companies and organizations have added to those categories in developing their own non-discrimination policies. You may want to familiarize yourself with the state guidelines and policies of your potential employer. Questions that probe personal areas or relate to any of those categories are inappropriate and often illegal, unless the employer has been able to have it classified as a legitimate requirement for the particular position.

When faced with a question that feels inappropriate or makes you uncomfortable, you have several options for handling it:

  • Answer the question anyway.
  • Try to identify the underlying issue they are concerned about and address it. - “I am not quite sure what you are getting at. If you are concerned about my ability to do… (a legitimate job responsibility), I can assure you I am capable.”
  • Confront them on the concerns you have about the question. “I believe that is not a question I should be asked during an interview. Can we discuss the issues relevant to the position?” or “Can you explain how this issue relates to the position?”
  • Simply decline to answer it. “That question makes me uncomfortable; I would prefer not to answer it.”

Often inappropriate or illegal question are simply the result of ignorance on the part of the interviewer about what questions cannot be asked during an interview. There is no right or wrong way to respond; you need to weigh the factors within your own personal values and belief system to determine what feels appropriate for you. You may not want to work for a company that would ask inappropriate questions and say so, you may really want the job regardless and answer, you may determine this to be a “teachable moment” and confront, you may identify it as an honest mistake and redirect, or you may hate confrontation and panic.

It is important to remember that however you choose to respond, it can impact the tone of the remainder of your interview. Different situations may also call for different responses. It might be a good idea to practice answering these types of questions with a friend or in a mock interview before your real interview to explore your reactions and possible responses.

Click here for an outline of legal and illegal questions.
Resources: http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/qanda.html - The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Questions and Answers on Federal Laws Prohibiting Job Discrimination