Despite your best efforts, you can never predict exactly what’s going to happen during a job interview. Sometimes a hiring manager asks a question that completely stumps you.
Other times, an interviewer crosses the line, whether they mean to or not. While personal queries aren’t illegal interview questions per se, they are inappropriate.
Plus, prying into someone’s personal life could run afoul of anti-discrimination laws. Here are five questions you shouldn’t have to discuss — and some tips on how to respond if an interviewer asks them anyway.
1. How old are you?
Job interviewers are welcome to dig into your work experience and education, but they shouldn’t ask about your age. Every state has a law that protects workers from age-related discrimination. If your interviewer asks how old you are, they’re wading into murky waters.
Plus, the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects workers over the age of 40. “Nobody can be rejected from a role for simply being too old,” said HR consultant Steve Pritchard. “If the skills are there, they deserve the same opportunity as people younger than them, and must be judged on the same merits, regardless of age.”
Chances are, an employer won’t ask you this question point blank. But they could go about it in a subtle way, like asking when you graduated from high school or college. If you sense an interviewer could use your age against you, steer the conversation back toward your relevant skills and experiences.
“You can refuse to answer the question,” said Pinar Ozcelik and Cameron Atkinson from SuperCareer.com. “Or make a joke out of it by saying: ‘My age is a secret, but I am old enough to work for you.’ Remember that you have no obligation to provide any information that could reflect your age.”
Of course, some employers will ask for your date of birth or identification to run a background check. But if you suspect an employer has used your age against you, consider filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
2. Do you have kids, or are you planning to?
Over 75 percent of senior-level women in tech are asked about kids, family, or marriage, according to a recent survey. Inappropriate questions about family life and plans especially affect women. Employers could turn down an applicant they expect to take maternity leave in the future.
Employers might also assume someone with a family needs extra time off or can’t keep regular hours. If work schedule is a concern, an interviewer can ask about your time commitment or ability to travel. But personal questions about kids or family should be off the table.
Valerie Streif, a senior advisor at The Mentat, said hiring managers might seek this information in subtle ways. “’Do you ever get overwhelmed?’ is a sneaky question,” said Streif. “It could be a way for them to figure out if you are good with time management, or it could be more malicious to obtain personal information about what you have going on outside the office.”
So, how can you respond if you get inappropriate (though technically not illegal) interview questions like these? Jennine Leale, CEO of HR Pro Consulting Services, suggested telling the interviewer it isn’t a concern and won’t interfere with your ability to do the job.
“Even if you know fully well you may get pregnant, are pregnant, have children … it’s none of their business,” said Leale. “You are protected by law.”
3. Are you married?
Inquiring about your relationship status is another job interview no-no. Interviewers may ask about your personal life as a way to get to know you. But they could also be making assumptions about your level of commitment to the job. Worst case scenario, someone could use this intel to discriminate against your sexual orientation.
It’s a red flag if the interviewer asks what your significant other thinks of you taking on a job, said Streif. “[This] shows they are trying to fish to see if you have a family or are married, but it can appear subtle, so sometimes interviewers get away with it,” she said.
If you sense an interviewer is veering into overly personal territory, steer the conversation back to the job at hand.
4. What country are you or your parents from?
Questions about national origin, race, or ethnicity are another problem applicants face. Although an employer can ask if you’re a U.S. citizen, they shouldn’t pry into where exactly you or your ancestors are from. That’s because job applicants are protected from discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or national origin.
“Your best answer for any of these questions if you do not feel comfortable answering them is: ‘Yes, I am legally authorized to work in the United States,’” said Ozcelik and Atkinson.
If you’re worried about these types of borderline illegal interview questions, another potential response is to talk about where you’re currently living. Or, you could honestly tell the interviewer you’re not comfortable with the question. A competent interviewer will realize they crossed the line and reverse course.
5. What was your salary in your last job?
Many employers ask about past salaries, but in some cities and states that question is against the law. Philadelphia, New York City, and Massachusetts, for instance, all bar hiring managers from asking about past salaries.
These laws are a way to address the gender pay gap. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women earn 20 percent less than men for the same job. If employers base their salary decisions on past salaries, they’ll just keep up this divide.
Before heading into an interview, prepare to talk about salary expectations. Even if it isn’t against the law for them to ask in your state, you don’t have to tell them (and most times it’s in your best interest not to tell them).
Instead, talk about the value you’ll bring to the position they’re interviewing you for, and what that’s worth. Discuss your expected salary, not your current or past.
Know your rights during a job interview
Although you might have to answer a lot of questions during an interview, there are some that shouldn’t come up. While the questions themselves aren’t illegal, discriminating against someone based on their answers is.
It’s in the best interest of both job-seekers and job interviewers to avoid asking about these areas:
- Marital status or family
- National origin
- Sexual orientation
Some hiring managers might not realize they’re asking borderline illegal interview questions. Gauging for “cultural fit,” for instance, can cause some interviewers to pry too much into someone’s personal life.
But focusing on these areas leaves companies vulnerable to discrimination complaints. While tough to prove, discrimination claims arise when an applicant feels they were treated unfairly on the basis of age, gender, or another aspect of their identity.
“Under Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any individual … because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin,” said Robert Odell, an employment lawyer in Los Angeles.
How to handle inappropriate or illegal interview questions
Unfortunately, you might find yourself in an uncomfortable situation during a job interview. Some interviewers might disregard these anti-discrimination rules. Others might simply be unaware of inappropriate or illegal questions to ask in an interview. Some could just be making small talk without realizing the error of their ways.
If you still really want the job, you could simply say the question doesn’t affect your commitment to the position. Or, you could say you don’t feel comfortable sharing that part of your identity, but you’re happy to talk about other relevant experiences.
If you experience discrimination, you could take legal recourse. To proceed, contact a lawyer or your local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office. They’ll instruct you on filing a claim with the EEOC.
By knowing your rights as an applicant, you can prepare to handle any off-limits or illegal interview questions that come your way.
For more on preparing for interviews, here are the most common job interview questions and how to answer them.
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