Handling Illegal Questions in an Interview

Did you know that you have the absolute right to leave an interview part way if it’s not going well? A lot of people don’t know that and stick through painful interviews to the bitter end, wasting everyone’s time. You also have the ability to leave an interview if things steer towards inappropriate or illegal questions. But say you really do want the job and you don’t think the person is being malevolent or they simply don’t know any better: what do you do about illegal or inappropriate interview questions then? For the purposes of these tips, let’s assume that you do want to finish the interview, you are interested in the job, and you don’t think the interviewer is intentionally being a jerk.

Accidental Illegal Questions

When you get to talking to a hiring manager, it can be easy for them to accidentally ask an illegal question (kids, marital status, etc.) If you don’t want to answer these questions, but you also don’t want to call them out, then you have some options:

  • Gently sidestep the question by pointing out that it is not relevant to your ability to work and that you are ready to put in the time, energy, and effort that the job entails.
  • If you think the person just didn’t know it was illegal, you can even say that they shouldn’t ask you that and you don’t need to answer it because the answer won’t impact your job
  • But if you do have things at home that impact your ability to work (lack of childcare for example), make sure that your scheduling needs are known. There’s no point in accepting a job if you can’t do the hours! But you never have to say why you are only available for some blocks of time. Another example tied to this is going to church on Sunday – you never have to say why you aren’t available on Sundays, just that you aren’t (or Sunday morning, or whatever the case may be).
  • At the same time though, you don’t want to demand flexibility from your job right away – you usually have to prove that you are trustworthy first. This is where doing your research into the job first comes in!

Remember that in the case of many accidental illegal questions, the hiring manager wasn’t intending to be a jerk or discriminatory – they may have genuinely not known or been looking for common ground with you. The fact is that asking about kids, jobs, and hobbies are all really common ways to break the ice between people. Unless you can prove that you weren’t hired solely because of answering an illegal question, you really won’t succeed in a lawsuit.

Does The Answer Matter for the Job?

Many questions are hedged in a way to let hiring managers learn things about you which you may not want to divulge (age being a major one). Now, sometimes this is because of the legalities of the job (for example, people working with alcohol, cannabis, nicotine, or a few other fields need to be of legal age), but often there is some ageism at play or worries that the person won’t be there long enough to be worth the investment. (Given that the average people stayed in one place for a while there was two years, I think the worries may have been in the wrong place, but I digress….)

A good way to handle questions around things like age is to redirect and ask how these things impact one’s ability to do the job. Obviously, you don’t want to be rude about it, but be genuine and curious rather than confrontational. Asking it in a way such as ‘how does this impact the job/my ability to do the job’ can gently tell the hiring manager that the question is inappropriate, give you more information about the job itself, and is tactful enough to not take offense.

Illegal Questions: Race, Origin, Places You have Lived

Race is problematic on its own but hiring managers who have no idea what they are doing can blunder into this one by asking things like how they can attract more people of color, how a candidate feels about working in diverse environments, and so on. It’s sincere, but it’s poor timing and not on you to answer. Gracefully answering with things like a reminder of where you want to work, your lack of experience in hiring, and expressing positive feelings for the business’ desire to be more diverse can all be helpful.

If you get asked about all the places you’ve been to, stick to the present day. Doing things like mentioning that you have lived in a few different places, but the current place you live in now is a fantastic or great place and you hope to stay here for a long time (hinting at your plans to stay long term at the job too).

Reflecting After on the Illegal Questions

It’s always incredibly important to reflect on how the interview went after, but even more so if you were dealing with questions that shaded towards the inappropriate or illegal. On top of reflecting on how the overall experience went and what you thought about the business, ask yourself the following:

  • How did those problematic questions make me feel?
  • Can I work for a business where I was asked questions like that?
  • Were the questions malicious or divisive or innocent?
  • How did I feel about the interview overall?
  • Is the company culture one that can be molded and changed over time or are these problems too entrenched (and if they can be changed, is that something I want to chip away at?)

Most importantly, were these problematic questions something that you could deal with, redirect, or a sign of worse things to come if you accept an offer of employment? As part of your research into a workplace, you should already have done a little digging into the company culture, so merge that with what you saw firsthand and move from there.

Illegal or inappropriate questions can be a problem, especially dealing with them tactfully, but it’s important to remember that many of them aren’t done deliberately and that they don’t have to break the chance to get employed by that business. But it is something to weigh afterwards when making your decision.

Have you ever been asked an inappropriate or illegal question? What did you do about it?

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