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Illegal Interview Questions

What are illegal interview questions?


This is a complex topic. Since we can't cover everything in a Career Connections newsletter, at the end of this article we've provided a wide variety of links to additional information.


Guidelines defining illegal interview questions are based on efforts by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to keep workplaces free from discrimination. For those who don't know, the U.S. EEOC is a federal government agency that was established in conjunction with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.


In essence, the Civil Rights Act, and subsequent Congressional expansion of that Act, makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against job applicants and employees on the basis of gender, gender identity, religion, age, political beliefs, race, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, citizenship status, or disability.


This also means that if an employer is uncertain about someone's status with regard to any of those protected categories, they have no legal right to pry for information. For example, an employer can't ask a job applicant if they're gay or transgender; they can't ask what religion the applicant follows or which political party they support; they can't ask if the applicant is married or has children; they can't ask where the applicant was born; they can't ask if the person has a disability; they can't ask the applicant's age, etc.


Note that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits discrimination against people who are age 40 or older, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents discrimination against people with disabilities and also requires reasonable accommodation for qualified employees who have disabilities.


Experiencing Illegal Interview Questions During An Interview


The interesting thing about illegal interview questions is that they may be direct, but often they aren't. Here are 2 examples of very direct questions that are illegal to ask, followed by more indirect ways to try and get the same information.



1) How old are you?

2) There's so much turmoil in the country. Who do you plan to support in the next presidential election?



1) How many years have you been working?

2) There's so much turmoil in the country. Do you plan to vote in November?


As you can see, the more indirect approach is still trying to pinpoint the applicant's age as well as open up conversation about the applicant's political perspective.


That leads to our next section: Why would a prospective employer ask illegal questions?


Motives for Asking Illegal Questions


There are several possible reasons for illegal interview questions:


1. Sometimes, there are no negative motives for asking illegal questions. The interviewer may be inexperienced and not even realize that s/he is asking anything illegal.


2. Sometimes the interviewer is simply making conversation and asking about your family or non-work activities or history in order to be friendly.


Nonetheless, even in those cases, you need to be aware of whether or not the questions are legal, and you need to have strategies about how to respond. The reason *you* need to be well-informed is because you can't truly know the motives of the interviewer. Maybe they're simply chatty. But perhaps they're actually biased and trying to inappropriately get personal information from you.


3. Finally, there are times when prospective employers really do have troubling motives for asking illegal questions. They may be prejudiced against people from certain countries, people of certain religions, people with particular political beliefs, people who are gay, people of a certain age or race, etc. And they ask illegal questions -- either directly or indirectly -- to try and find out more about who you are in those respects.


A Few Options for Answering Illegal Questions


You *can*choose to answer the question if it truly seems well-intentioned on the interviewer's part. For example, suppose you're from a particular place in Cameroon and you have a distinctive accent. As it turns out, the interviewer lived in Cameroon for 7 years. She mentions that your accent sounds like people from the area of Cameroon where she lived and worked for many years and asks if you might be from that area. In a case like this, you may feel comfortable answering the question (even though it's technically illegal) and chatting a bit about Cameroon.


You can choose a diversion tactic (also called side-stepping or reframing). For example, suppose the interviewer asks if childcare is going to be an issue. Note that they haven't directly asked whether or not you have kids! The real concern behind this question might be whether or not your personal life is going to interfere with your job responsibilities.  However, perhaps they don’t even want to hire someone who may be weighed down by responsibilities for young children.  Whatever the case, don't mention anything about your marital status or whether you're a parent. You can simply say something like: It sounds as though you're asking whether or not my personal life will impact my reliability. I can assure you that it won't. I'll be present for my shifts and do an extremely good job.


If diversion hasn't worked, you can directly express concerns about the illegal questions. It's fair to point out to an interviewer that their questions don't seem relevant or appropriate. Use professional and constructive language when giving that feedback. It will let them know that you're well-informed about illegal interview questions and that they need to be cautious. If, despite all your efforts, they continue to ask illegal questions, you can refuse to answer and/or leave the interview. You may not want to work for a place where the interview itself is offensive. 


What Should I Do If I've Had a Really Bad Experience?


If you've had a truly bad experience at an interview or on a job, you may want to take action. In this case, by "bad", we mean very inappropriate and/or discriminatory.


One thing you can do is file a complaint with the EEOC.


If you're low income and the concern may require an attorney, the State of MA offers information about organizations you can contact for potential legal assistance.


QUICK TIP #1: Please remember that when you're looking for a job, it's important to know your rights. Thus, take time to inform yourself. You can start with the links offered below.


QUICK TIP #2: It's also important to know your rights once you've got a job. For more information, visit this St. Mark's website page.




Note: We aren't endorsing every detail that these sites provide (and they may not fully agree with each other on some points). But each of the sites contains a lot of valuable information. 


Flex Jobs Very good article


Duke Originally published in The Muse, this is a brief, but interesting article


EEOC This is geared towards employers who are hiring


Your Rights (EEOC site)


Test Gorilla This site offers advice to employers, and that advice is also helpful to job seekers


Yale This site offers advice to job seekers


DePaul University 10 examples of legal/illegal questions


Colombia University Brief article with sample illegal questions and some advice


Yahoo Finance 8 Common Illegal Interview Questions


Monster 5 Common Illegal Interview Questions, with some additional info


Career Builder Good general article

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