Don’t Answer That Interview Question
Inappropriate interview questions and how to respond (diplomatically).
By Lisa Vaas
He was in his early 50s, and he looked every bit of it.
The questions on the job application went right to his age.
After stewing over the form and discarding his first draft, he filled out a second copy. Then, he sat and waited for his interview. As he waited, an attractive, young woman entered the room for a job interview.
She was called in before him. She wound up getting the job.
He didn’t. He did, however, receive $50,000 after filing age-discrimination claims with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The above encounter happened to a friend of Matt Rosen, who shared the story with Ladders but asked not to identify his friend.
Rosen has seen employment discrimination from almost every angle. He has been a certified labor and employment attorney since 1981, has worked in human resources since 1995, and recently found himself looking for a new job. He’s been on both sides of the interview table and witnessed many inappropriate questions that can lead to discrimination.
“Every place, it’s mind-boggling,” said Rosen, who recently began HR and legal work for Franklin Street Financial in Florida. “You are always asked for birth dates, for EEOC (-related information such as race and disability status). … Places, in my viewpoint, just ask for too much.”
The reason interviewers ask inappropriate questions varies. Sometimes they discriminate, as they did in the scenario above. Sometimes they need the information for internal statistics, he said.
And then sometimes interviewers are simply trying to make conversation, according to Ellen B. Vance, senior consultant and advisory services practice leader for Titan Group , a Richmond, Va., human-resources consulting firm. “Many inexperienced hiring managers use questions about family as an icebreaker for interviews, not realizing that what seem to them as innocent inquiries about spouse, children, etc., are unlawful.”
Most job seekers don’t want to sue over these practices. They just want to know how to deal with them diplomatically. Job seekers want to avoid appearing combative and thus jeopardizing their chances of being hired and want to avoid handing over information that can be used against them in discriminatory situations. Knowing what questions to shy away from is the starting point, and knowing how to skirt them is the next step.
Answer the questions they should have asked
Vance typically advises job seekers to redirect inappropriate questions back to the interviewer. For example, if asked whether you have children, you can respond by saying, “It sounds like family is important to you — tell me about yours.”
“By redirecting, the applicant is not placed in the situation of being perceived as adversarial,” Vance said. If an interviewer presses, she suggests that another response option is, “I am perplexed by your question because I cannot determine why my age/my marital status/my nationality is critical to performing this job. Would you shed some light on why you are asking this question?”
“If that doesn’t cause the interviewer to catch their mistake, then the applicant is left only with the option of saying, ‘I would prefer not to respond to that question,’” Vance said.
Don’t answer these questions
Here are more questions that can and can’t be asked, according to HR professionals and the EEOC. In all circumstances, try to find out why an interviewer is asking a particular off-limits question, and then steer the conversation into addressing particular, relevant concerns, in the following ways:
Nationality: It’s illegal to ask a job seeker about his nationality, his citizen status, his native language, or how long he’s lived here. If asked, instead explain that you’re legally able to work in the United States.
Religion: It’s not permissible to ask what religion job seekers practice, what religious holidays they observe, or their religious affiliations. If an interviewer probes these verboten areas, try to find out what the interviewer is concerned about and to address these concerns: working certain days of the week, for example, could be a legitimate concern.
Age : Do not answer questions about age beyond stating that you are over the age of 18. Interviewers shouldn’t ask how close you are to retirement but can ask what your long-term career goals are.
Marital and family status: While it’s permissible for interviewers to ask whether you have ever used another name in work or academic situations, it’s not permissible for them to ask questions about your maiden name or marital status. Don’t answer questions about whether you have children or what your child-bearing plans are, but do explain whether you’re available to work overtime or whether you can travel, particularly on short notice.
Gender: If gender comes up, steer the conversation into what traits and abilities you can bring to the job.
Health and physical abilities: It’s inappropriate to ask job seekers if they smoke, drink or take drugs. Your height, weight, use of sick days, presence of disabilities or past operations/sicknesses are similarly off limits. Interviewers do have the right to ask if you’ve violated company policies regarding alcohol or tobacco, whether you use illegal drugs (as opposed to simply “drugs”), whether you’re able to lift a given weight or reach items on shelves that are at a particular height, how many workdays you missed in the past year, whether you’re physically capable of executing the position’s specific duties, and whether you can perform the job with or without reasonable accommodations.
Residence: It is inappropriate to ask how far away a job seeker lives, but it’s permissible to ask if the candidate can start work at a given hour or if he is willing to relocate.
Criminal record: It’s inappropriate to ask if a job seeker has ever been arrested, but it is permissible to ask if she has ever been convicted of a specific type of crime that relates to the job.
Military service: It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against a member of the National Guard or Reserves, but it is legal to ask if the job seeker anticipates requiring extended time away from work.
If worse comes to worst
If you feel that your employment rights have been violated, you may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Here’s the EEOC’s information page on how to do so. The EEOC also provides an in-depth look at what constitutes discriminatory employment practice under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 , the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).
Lisa Vaas covers resume writing techniques and the technology behind the job search for Ladders.