How to Tap Dance Around Illegal Interview Questions

You've submitted a stellar résumé and shined in your phone screen interview. You've prepared stories and crafted questions that will demonstrate your skills and accomplishments when you meet the hiring manager face to face. You know in your heart that, if given the opportunity, you have the ability to succeed at the job you'll discuss. You're set to knock the ball out of the park.

At the same time, you might be a woman, 40 years old or older, a person of color or have an obvious disability. Perhaps you have a distinct foreign accent, or your name is uncommon and difficult to pronounce. Maybe you display an affect that is often associated with a particular sexual orientation.

And then it happens. You are in the midst of the job interview, and as the conversation progresses the hiring authority poses a question like one of these:

--When do you plan on starting a family?

--In what country were you born?

--Are you gay?

--What is your religion?

--Do you have a neurological or degenerative disease that caused you to limp into this room?

--How many years will it be before you qualify for social security?

You will likely assume that these questions reflect employment bias, however they might instead arise because the interviewer is inexperienced and isn't familiar with what can and can't be discussed. Whatever the case might be, each of these questions touches on a legally protected class and has no place in a job interview.

How do you respond?

If you directly challenge the interviewer you may win the point but lose the job opportunity. Doing so is likely to make the interviewer view you as combative - a trait that, in and of itself, can disqualify a job seeker.

Larry Bodine, editor-in-chief of, offers two alternative approaches to deal with the situation:

Respond with a question of your own. "That's an interesting question. I've never been asked that in a job interview. Can you tell me why you asked?" Or, put it this way: "I'm happy to answer that question. But can you help me understand how that relates to the job?"

It is fair for an employer to ask a question that relates to a candidate's ability to accomplish the work intrinsic to any specific job. These questions give the interviewer the ability to justify the question - if at all possible. And, if not, they can give the interviewer a necessary but friendly prod to get back on solid ground.

Answer the concern behind the question. The hiring manager might ask the illegal question: "Do you have kids?" Rather than challenge the question itself, you might determine the issue behind it. For example, this instance might be rooted in the company's experience of high employee absenteeism due to child care issues. Bodine suggests you respond by saying simply: "There is nothing in my family life that will get in the way of doing the job."

Regardless if you take one or the other of Bodine's suggested responses, or go a different route, it is important to take control of the situation. You should try to keep the focus on the job, the company, your abilities, your accomplishments and how you represent a strong fit. And once your interview has concluded, you will be able to consider another response.

Evaluate the situation and what is in your best interest. Ask yourself if you believe the offending question was the product of real bias, or an unintentional misstep on the part of an inexperienced interviewer. If it is the former, is this really the kind of company at which you want to spend 40 hours every week? Is it a job you still want to pursue, or do you want to just move on to the next opportunity? Is the offense sufficiently clear cut and egregious so as to merit a formal complaint?

As a job hunter, you should take the time to educate yourself about what kinds of discrimination are prohibited by law. Sometimes, there are things you think ought to be illegal, but they are not. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces the laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on: age (for workers older than 40), disability, genetic information, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, race and religion.

For information about current federal laws and regulations regarding workplace discrimination, visit the EEOC's site: For specific information about your particular situation, consult an attorney who specializes in employment law.

Unfortunately, we can't legislate away boorishness and all forms of prejudice. But there are effective ways to respond to it when it occurs. By responding intelligently, you maintain your own dignity and maximize the possibility of getting the job of your dreams.

Happy hunting!

Arnie Fertig is the head coach of JOBHUNTERCOACH.COM, where he utilizes his extensive background in HR Staffing and as owner of a recruiting company to help mid-career job-hunters land their next job. Arnie provides one-to-one coaching services to individuals throughout the U.S. in all aspects of the job hunt, including: resume writing, personal branding, utilizing social media, enhancing networking skills, preparing for interviews, and negotiating compensation.

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