Illegal Interview Questions
By Heidi M. Allison, Managing Director, MyReferences.com
Jim, 48, is sitting in an interview, which has
been going well. He's confident that his
qualifications match those of the position, and
he believes he'll fit into the corporate culture.
As the interview is winding down, the interviewer
casually asks: "Will your family mind the
relocation from New York to Texas?"
How should Jim answer this question?
There are several questions that employers may
not legally ask applicants. Federal law attempts
to ensure that candidates are hired on job
qualifications and not by prejudicial criteria.
Questions structured to obtain information on
race, gender, religion, marital status, age,
physical and/or mental status, ethnic background,
country of origin, sexual preference, or any
other discriminatory factor are generally illegal
as grounds for making employment decisions.
With few exceptions, these factors contribute
nothing to your ability to perform a job, and an
employer must substantiate those cases where a
direct relationship is thought to exist.
Anything that is not a bona fide occupational
qualification may not be covered directly,
although the interviewer may seek the information
So, how do you handle an illegal interview
First it is
important to assess the intentions of the
interview questions are asked in true innocence
-- or, better stated, in true ignorance:
ignorance of the law, ignorance of what questions
are proper, and ignorance of how the information
could be used by others in a discriminatory way.
illegal questions are asked when the untrained
interviewer is trying to be friendly and asks a
seemingly innocent question about your personal
life or family background.
attempt by the candidate to assert his or her
constitutional rights will merely throw up the
defense shields and put an end to any future
consideration for employment. Warning lights go
on, sirens sound, and the interviewer begins
backing down from what otherwise may have been a
very encouraging position.
So what is the proper response?
Any response depends on the particular situation
and the personalities and motives of those
involved, but overall you have three basic
(1) Answer truthfully if you feel your response
will not hurt you;
(2) Inform the
interviewer that the question is illegal and risk
offending them and ending your chances for the
(3) Base your answer on the requirements of the
job and your ability to perform it.
Here are a few examples of casually asked illegal
questions and suggested responses:
Q: Does your family mind the travel required for
A: I am accustomed to significant business
travel. In fact, I find being on the road
invigorating, and my track record has been very
consistent under these conditions.
Q: Are you religious? Will your religion prevent
you from working extra hours or on weekends when
we have a big project?
A: I suppose everyone is religious in their own
way. I do not foresee any circumstances that
would interfere with the quality or commitment of
Q: You have a very unusual last name. What is its
A: It really is a mouthful, isn't it? I've always
used my first name and last initial in my
business e-mail address, as it is easier.
Q: Are you planning a family in the near future?
A: Currently, I am focused on my career and
although having a family is always a possibility,
it is not a priority at the moment.
Q: How many more years do you see yourself in the
work force (before retiring)?
A: In today's world people don't retire like they
used to; some can't. My career and my need to
earn an income are priorities that I do not
foresee changing in the near future.
How you choose to
handle these types of questions depends on the
perceived motivation of the interviewer as well
as your desire to have the position. However, no
matter how badly you want or need a position,
always keep in mind that if a company is capable
of asking illegal questions before you are an
employee, there is a greater potential for
mistreatment after you are hired.
Your best bet is
to try and keep the interview focused on the
qualifications of the position and your
qualifications as a candidate.
Blatant discrimination does take place. If it
does and you are offended, you have the right to
end the interview immediately ("I don't
think we're a good match. Thank you for your
time.") -- You never wanted to work there in
the first place!
So, how did Jim in our example above answer the
question? He could have said, "It's none of
your concern," which likely would have
quickly ended a promising interview.
But Jim thought about the underlying intent of
the company in asking the question, which was
"Will relocating an employee who likely has
a family be so troublesome that he/she will be
unproductive for months?" Considering that,
he might have responded, "My family and I
are committed to my career, so relocation is
absolutely not a problem."
But Jim's family of five was used to moving every
several years because of his ascending career, so
Jim responded: "I've moved my family every
three years, and they always consider it a great
adventure. I've talked to them about the
possibility of this move, and they're very
Ms. Allison is the Managing Director of
MyReferences.com (an Allison & Taylor
Company), the nation's oldest professional
employment verification and reference checking
firm. Please visit their site at www.allisontaylor.com or call 248 651 9299 to
learn more about this valuable service.