“Can They Ask Me That?”
Six Improper and Illegal Interview Questions and How to Answer Them
Many interviewers aren’t aware that they’re asking illegal questions—and just as many candidates aren’t aware they’re answering them. Here, Peter K. Studner identifies six common off-limits questions and advises job searchers on how to respond.
Picture this: A great job interview is drawing to a close. Hoping to find out more about the candidate on a personal level, the interviewer asks, “So, are you married?” The candidate blurts out, “I’m so excited! My fiancé and I are getting married this June.” The employer starts to think, Okay…but what if she wants to start a family soon after? Maternity leave could mean that we’d have to hire a temp. It might be better to look at other candidates.
Is this scenario politically correct? No. In fact, it is illegal for employers to ask about a candidate’s family plans (marriage, engagement, and child planning), among a host of other issues. But according to Peter K. Studner, many interviewers and candidates don’t know that.
“Most interviewers haven’t had formal training on what questions border on improper or are illegal, and as a result, interviewees often volunteer ‘wrong’ answers and too much information,” says Studner, author of Super Job Search IV: The Complete Manual for Job Seekers & Career Changers (Jamenair Ltd., 2015, ISBN: 978-0-938667-06-3, $26.95,www.SuperJobSearch.com). “That’s why it’s important for all job seekers to know which questions are illegal and how to politely deflect them without harming their candidacy.
“Oh, and if you’re curious, a good answer to ‘Are you married?’ would be, ‘I have a good social life and am focused 100 percent on moving my career forward,'” he adds.
In Super Job Search IV, Studner, whose outplacement firm has helped over 27,000 people receive offers, guides readers through the complicated process of conducting a targeted and ultimately successful job search campaign. Best of all, Super Job Search IV isn’t “just” a book—it’s a systematic approach to finding a job that includes online resources and an app.
Here, Studner shares six questions employers shouldn’t ask (but often do), along with possible replies:
How old are you? It’s illegal for employers to ask a candidate’s age unless they’re trying to determine whether or not a candidate is a minor. That said, your odds of hearing this question go up if you’re a more mature candidate.
“While an employer may not know your exact age, they’ll still be aware of the general ballpark—so refusing to state that you’re 57 might be of limited usefulness,” Studner comments. “In a situation like this, I recommend getting the interviewer to focus on your experience, not your age. A good response might be, ‘I’m in my 50s. Does age make a difference for this job?’ Then remind the interviewer that you bring 20 to 25 years’ experience to the table and describe several of your most applicable accomplishments.”
When did you graduate college or high school? This is a more sneaky way for employers to fish for your age—and it’s still illegal. Studner says your first tactic should be to sidestep the question: “I did not put that down on my résumé as I was told that it is not pertinent for any job application.” This response should do nicely to get you off the hook.
“If the interviewer presses for a reply, you might give him the date and then ask how that applies to your candidacy,” he advises. “And in the final analysis, would you really want to work for a company where the management discriminates against age? It might be better to move on.”
How’s your health? Employers have the right to determine if you are physically able to perform the functions of the job for which you’re applying. But beyond that, you are not obligated to—nor should you—reveal any health issues you may have. Rather than volunteer that you are a cancer survivor in your third year, for example, a better reply might be, “I had a physical after I left my last job and passed it with flying colors!” And if it is true, add, “…in my last year, I used only four days of sick leave.”
“People have a tendency to volunteer too much information about themselves,” Studner comments. “While you can be proud and certainly grateful that you’re a cancer survivor, it does not belong in your interview discussion. It’s really none of the employer’s business.”
What’s your religion? Do you observe any religious holidays? Any question that asks you to reveal your religion is illegal. If this topic comes up—and assuming that the person who is interviewing you will not be your boss—you might tell him or her politely that is an improper question. Know that this is a risky strategy, though. You may have won the conversation but lost the interview.
“Alternatively, you might simply say, ‘I prefer not to discuss my religion, but I can assure you that it will not interfere with my doing this job,'” Studner says. “You might also try to deliver the same message with some humor: ‘What religion do you have in mind? I would consider practicing it as I really would like to work here!’ There is no sense in getting upset when an interviewer does not pay attention to the rules. And humor can sometimes bring the conversation back within proper bounds.”
Do you have a criminal record? It’s legal for employers to ask if you’ve been convicted of a crime on job applications and in interviews. Many employers ask this as a matter of course and certainly will if a particular type of conviction might relate to the job’s duties. That said, employers can’t ask about your arrest record—but that doesn’t mean they can’t do independent research, either.
“I once had a candidate who had a DUI arrest,” Studner recounts. “She wasn’t obligated to disclose this, but in her state, certain websites could legally post her picture and arrest information. These websites essentially blackmailed individuals with a ‘fee’ to have their arrest posting either removed or placed at the end of the line. With the help of an attorney, it cost her a few thousand dollars to get her notices off the Internet.
“In a manner of speaking, this client was fortunate because she could afford to have the evidence removed, but not all candidates are in the same position,” he continues. “In these kinds of cases where a future employer might uncover prior arrests, it is important to discuss the incident up front and point out that it was a thing of the past, never to be repeated. The more serious the offense, the more convincing you have to be.”
Before you sat down, I noticed that you have a limp. How did that happen? This question represents any query about disability. Here’s what you need to know: An employer cannot legally ask about a person’s disability, but can indicate certain characteristics about a job that might require a more direct reply about the candidate’s abilities. For example, “This job requires lifting packages up to 30 pounds, or standing on your feet for six hours a day, or talking on the phone at least 80 percent of the time. Is this something you can do on a continuous basis?”
“Here you need to be frank,” Studner says. “If you have a disability, there are agencies nationally and locally that can help you find a company with jobs suitable for your limitations. However, if you have a disability that does not interfere with the job’s requirements, you are not obligated to disclose or discuss it.”
“While this is not an exhaustive list of every improper or illegal question, it should prepare you to reply to them and, when possible, sidestep innocent but damaging answers,” Studner concludes. “My advice to all candidates is to never lie in an interview, but also to never volunteer negative information.”
For more on answering tricky interview questions, consult Super Job Search IV.