Offensive and Illegal Questions
by Tom Washington
Offensive and illegal questions pose real problems to interviewees. If you object to the improper questions, you may offend the interviewer, yet by saying nothing the interviewer may be encouraged to continue his or her discriminatory ways. Knowing what is legal and illegal, and knowing effective techniques for combating improper questions, will enable you to respond appropriately when faced with this situation.
You may also be asked personal questions which, while not illegal, are certainly inappropriate. If you are asked such a question, you must quickly decide whether you will answer it or tactfully decline. Because the interviewer will generally realize he's touching a sensitive area, a gentle rebuff will usually cause the person to back off. It could be, "Mr. Hanson, I try not to get into personal issues during interviews." Examples of such personal questions might include, "Do you have a boyfriend?" "Are you planning to get married?" or "Are you living together?" Just knowing that you don't have to answer such questions often helps. Tactfully declining is the key. It is advisable not to try to make the person feel ashamed; that won’t help you. It is equally unwise to make negative assumptions about the person or the company because of the questions. The explanation for why the question is being asked often has more to do with curiosity than discrimination. Curiosity, however, does not excuse improper behavior in any situation.
Because most interviewers are untrained either in the art or legality of interviewing, it is fairly common for interviewees to be asked illegal questions. Know your rights and know in advance how you plan to handle inappropriate queries. Virtually all states have laws or regulations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, medical condition, physical handicap, marital status, and age (40+), particularly as it pertains to employment applications and interviewing.
Generally, questions about national origin, including questions about your native language, are illegal. Employers cannot ask about marital status or the number or ages of children or dependents. Nor can they ask questions regarding pregnancy or birth control use, or plans for having children.
Employers can ask about disabilities in the following form: "Do you have any physical condition or handicap which may limit your ability to perform the job applied for? If yes, what can be done to accommodate your limitations?" They cannot, however, ask about an applicant's general medical condition, illnesses, or having received Workman's Compensation. Nor can they ask, "Do you have any physical disabilities or handicaps?"
Employers are not allowed to inquire about religion. A question such as "Are there any holidays or days of the week you can't work?" would probably be held illegal, even if religion was not specified. However, it would probably be acceptable to ask, "We often work holidays and weekends. Is there anything that would prevent you from doing so?"
Employers can ask if you have ever been convicted of a felony, but cannot ask if you have ever been arrested. In some states even the question about a felony would have to be worded carefully. In those states the question about a felony conviction must be job related. The question posed to a candidate for controller might need to be, "Have you ever been convicted of embezzlement?" rather than "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"
Dealing With Illegal Questions
There are several ways to respond to illegal or prying questions. Each of them can be effective, but it is important to decide in advance which strategy you will use and then practice it. Options include:
1. Answer the question without revealing that you are the least bit offended. For most illegal and prying questions, that is my recommendation. To respond in that way, assume that the person means no harm, is simply curious, and is unaware that people might be offended by such questions.
2. Address the real and more basic concern of the interviewer rather than the surface concern. For example, if the interviewer asks the illegal question, "Do you have any children?" the employer may not be concerned about children in general, but whether you will likely miss work because of caring for a sick child. Your response could be, "I have three children in school and they have excellent full-time child care." Or, “If you mean can I meet the demands of the job, yes I can.”
3. Tactfully remind the interviewer that the question is illegal. You might say: "That's not a legal question. I'd rather cover other points." Or, “I would prefer to only be asked legal and pertinent questions.” Or, “I’d prefer to discuss my qualifications for this job which are…” If you do respond in this way, continue the interview in the same professional manner you had prior to the question. The interviewer may feel somewhat foolish for having asked such a question, or may feel perturbed at you for being so “sensitive.” Because you've demonstrated both your assertiveness and your knowledge of the law, it is unlikely you'll be asked another such question.
Generally it is better to answer questions without confronting the interviewer about legality. At the same time, you should be looking for a pattern of discrimination. One illegal question can be written off as a simple mistake, but several such questions might indicate a pattern. If you want the position, continue answering the questions or tactfully decline, but make a mental note of each illegal question. Write them down immediately following the interview. If you don't get the job and you feel your were discriminated against, your notes will be important to any action you take. If you feel you’ve been discriminated against, speak to the company's HR director and describe what happened. If you do not receive satisfaction, you may wish to contact the appropriate government agency or hire a labor attorney.
Suggested Answers To Illegal Questions
Predict which illegal questions you are likely to face and prepare responses. Your goal is to get a job offer—decide if you want to work for the person or the organization after the offer is made.
Are you married?
This question is usually addressed to women to assess availability for overtime and other issues.
Tactful Deflection: “I’d prefer to stay on track with job-related issues rather than personal ones.”
Nonconfrontational: "Yes I am. My work is very important to me though, so I make sure nothing interferes with my giving one hundred percent to my job. I can travel and work weekends when necessary." That's a fine statement for the person who is willing to work 50 or more hours per week, work weekends, and travel occasionally, but not every woman or man is so inclined. That's why you've got to phrase your response as positively as possible while still being true to yourself.
A person who really does not want to work a lot of overtime might respond to the marriage question this way: “Yes I am. My work is very important to me so I make sure nothing interferes with my giving one hundred percent. I do whatever is necessary to complete my work on schedule.”
When do you plan to start a family?
Such a question is designed to discover marital and family status. Small employers may have trouble covering for someone who takes a lengthy maternity leave, but that does not excuse the question.
Tactful Deflection: Family issues are pretty personal for me. I can tell you this, every employer I’ve worked for was glad to have me.”
Nonconfrontational: You can put this person at ease with a couple of responses: "No, we're not going to have children. We're both very career oriented." Or, "I do intend to have children, but not for several years, and when I do my leave would be very short."
What religion are you?
Tactful Deflection: This question is so blatant that it is very easy just to say, “I really don’t care to discuss religion. I’d love to tell you about some of my work successes however.”
Nonconfrontational: If you practice a religion you might say, "I am a religious person (or you could substitute spiritual for religious) but I don't mix religion with work. I get along with everyone regardless of their religion." If you said synagogue or mosque, you have revealed your religion. If you merely say, "I attend services," that has not revealed your religion. If a person presses you to be more specific and name the denomination or religion you belong to, decide in advance how you will handle it. If you feel comfortable stating "I'm Baptist" or "I'm Jewish," then say so.
How old are you?
Tactful Deflection: “I don’t really think you want to touch on age issues do you?”
Nonconfrontational: When answering this question, show that you are comfortable with your age, that you are proud of what you’ve accomplished, and that you are a person full of energy. Your answer could be a simple, “I’m 54” or “I'm 54. I’ve been in this field 28 years and I’m as enthusiastic about it as the day I started.
In developing answers to inappropriate questions, use the above examples as guides, but create responses that fit you and your personality. Go into interviews with confidence that you are prepared to sell yourself and to deal with both illegal and inappropriate questions.