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Simple Truths About Handling the 5 Toughest Challenges in a Job Interview

Challenge #2: Illegal Questions

A simple truth about illegal questions is that interviewers sometimes ask them because they are utterly unaware of the laws governing inquires. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking the law—just as the police officer says when you claim not to have seen the 35 m.p.h. sign while cruising along at 50 m.p.h. However, as noted in the prior discussion of incompetents, someone who is thrust into the role of interviewer may simply be inadequately trained, but may still be trying, to the best of his or her ability, to look out for the employer's best interests.

In handling such questions, there is a broad spectrum of possible responses. At one extreme, you could confront the interviewer by pointing out that the question is illegal, express your outrage that you would be asked such a question, and state that, as a result, you no longer have any interest in exploring employment opportunities with the organization. Clearly, this approach effectively closes the door on future employment with this organization. Is that really your wish at this point in the process? At the other extreme, you could simply answer the question directly, which may well involve revealing information that could be damaging to your candidacy. Do you really want to risk losing the opportunity for a job offer at this time? Most often, it's best to chart a middle course. Keep your options open for as long as possible, and don't close any doors until you truly have enough information about the position to determine whether or not you want to continue pursuing it. You can always turn down a job offer after you have gleaned as much intelligence from the experience as possible.

Another simple truth about illegal questions is that, most often, they reflect an underlying concern that the interviewer wishes to probe. If you can figure out the question behind the question, you can then find a way to allay the interviewer's genuine worry. Accomplishing this without an indignant confrontation avoids embarrassing the interviewer, and may preserve or even strengthen your candidacy. Although you may be well within your rights to protest an illegal question and create a stink, remember the goals of this first interview: to determine if the position and organization are a good fit for you and to get you to the point of receiving a job offer, which you may then accept or reject. Embarrassing or humiliating the interviewer or putting him or her on the defensive is not a recommended method to advancing your candidacy.

It may be that you find a particular question so offensive that you decide in the heat of the moment not to pursue employment with this organization any further. Before you cross the point of no return, though, consider the following:

  • • Finishing out the interview on a cordial basis may be a productive experience that will enhance your performance in future interviews with other prospective employers.
  • • If the offending interviewer is not your future supervisor, it may be well worth continuing with the interview. He or she may simply be an incompetent interviewer with whom you would have little contact once hired.
  • • There may be other current or future positions with this organization that would be of interest to you, and in which you would have little or no contact with this interviewer.

If you are truly offended enough to want to terminate your candidacy, maintain your professionalism. Graciously state that you are withdrawing your application for employment at this time, and remember to thank the interviewer for his or her time.

Following is a chart that lists several illegal questions along with related questions that are perfectly legal for an interviewer to ask. Note the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the two. (Note that employment discrimination law is a moving target; by the time this book is published, applicable laws may have changed.)

Sample Interview Questions

Illegal Legal
Where were you born? Are you legally authorized to work in the United States?
How about your parents?
How old are you? Are you over the age of 18?
Do you have any disabilities? Could you please demonstrate how you would perform these job-related tasks?
Have you had any serious illnesses or surgeries? When was your last physical exam? Are you able to perform the tasks essential to this position?
How many children do you have and what are their ages? What are your childcare arrangements? Would you be willing and able to work overtime and travel as needed for the job?
Would you be willing to relocate if necessary?
What faith or religion do you practice? Would you be able to work on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays as required by the position?
Have you ever been arrested? Have you been convicted of a felony in the last seven years?
Have you ever been in trouble with the law in any way? Do you have a valid driver's license?
Have you ever served in the armed forces of any other country than the United States'? In what branch or branches of the armed forces have you served? What training did you have?

In general, questions about age, health status, and medical history often stem from the employer's perfectly understandable concern as to whether a candidate is fully capable of executing the tasks required of the position. When interviewers ask questions similar to those listed in the left column of the chart, often what they really want and need to know is shown in the column on the right. In any case, if you are asked any of the questions on the left, it's best to reply as though you're responding to the question on the right and connect your answer directly to the responsibilities of the position.

By far the most effective approach to handling illegal, inappropriate, or awkward questions is to totally bend them to your benefit—that is, to answer the question that you wish the interviewer had asked on the same topic. This requires quick thinking on your part, but it can be highly effective in refocusing the conversation and showing you in your best light. The following tips provide two excellent examples.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesJob Search, Job Interview Questions, & Job Interview TipsSimple Truths About Handling the 5 Toughest Challenges in a Job Interview - Challenge #1: The Incompetent Interviewer, Tips From The Pros, Challenge #2: Illegal Questions