job seeker being asked an illegal question

Ask an HR Pro: What if a Potential Employer Asks Me an “Illegal” Question?

Are there any questions interviewers are not legally allowed to ask me?

Lisa Shuster, MBA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP​ and iHire's Chief People Officer answers your tough job search and hiring questions.

ask an hr pro lisa shuster

You are in the midst of a great interview…you have a nice rapport with the hiring manager, you are responding articulately to every question posed, and you feel like you are a perfect fit for the role. And then it happens. Out of nowhere:

“Do you have children?”

“You have such a unique name. What is the origin?”

Most often these illegal questions are innocently asked when an untrained interviewer is attempting to be friendly and show a personal interest in you. In fact, most often interviewers don’t even know they asked an inappropriate question. So, how should you respond if you are in this potentially sticky situation? After all, if you answer, there’s a possibility that you will be discriminated against; however, if you don’t, you may not get the job. It’s a lose-lose situation.

If you find yourself in this predicament, remain calm and be careful about asserting your constitutional rights. This will put the hiring manager on the defensive and likely put an end to consideration of your candidacy. If a hiring manager asks a question that relates to a protected characteristic (race, religion, age, gender, disability, etc.), the best approach is to listen for the question’s intent and respond with an answer that speaks to your ability to meet the requirements of the job.

You may or may not choose to provide the direct response to the illegal question (depending on your comfort level); however, this approach enables you to provide a tactful answer without sacrificing your rights.

Here are a few common questions with non-confrontational responses that will help keep you in the running for the job:

What country are you from?

The employer is attempting to uncover if you are authorized to work in this country. A good response: I am very proud of my nationality; however, you should know that I am authorized to work in the United States and do not require sponsorship of any kind.

Do you have children?

Sadly, this question is typically only asked of women. The employer is concerned that you may frequently be out of the office with sick children, or unable to travel due to your status as a parent. A good response: I have two wonderful kids and very reliable day care providers, as well as a supportive and participative spouse. Accordingly, I am able to travel overnight if needed and work any schedule that the job requires.

How old are you?

The employer wants to assess your ability to navigate change, as well as learn new processes and technology. A good response: I stopped aging at 39; however, I’ve been in this field for 25 years and never stopped learning.

In developing your responses to inappropriate/illegal questions, use the above examples as a guide, but create answers that fit you and your personality. Ultimately, if you are able to sell yourself against the qualifications of the job, you will confidently and successfully answer any questions asked.

Check out more great interviewing tips including our “Acing the Interview” webinar.

By Natalie Winzer, iHire | August 08, 2016
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