How To Navigate Illegal Questions During Your Next Interview
You’ve made it to the first interview in your job search! Hooray! After what seems like a long process preparing for this moment, you are finally here.
If you're in a position where you are looking to escape your current job ASAP, you may be more willing than usual to accommodate anything they throw your way. Even those questions that seem a little too personal or casual like, “Do you have kids?” or “What kind of car do you have?”, which in many contexts are absolutely illegal.
So what do you do?
Although the questions may be illegal to ask, there are ways to answer this questions politely and effectively. This was the interviewer has the information they are looking for and you can feel more comfortable with the conversation.
Laws of the Land
During the interview process the most important governing laws are Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. These laws have been put into place to protect all workers. They prevent employers from making employment decisions based on:
- Marital or Family Status
There are exceptions if one of the above is directly related to the job, however it is a hard case to prove for any employee. Keep in mind, states are allowed to implement laws and policies that go above and beyond the government requirements and restrictions.
It should be noted that if you discuss these details willingly and unsolicited, it is not illegal. Some interviews will engage in the conversation, but know that they are responsible for being aware of the boundaries in place so they may not go in to detail with you.
For example, if you bring up your kids, you may not hear the common response of, "Oh, how cute! How old are they?" This is because asking how old a candidate's children is definitely walking the line of legality.
Marital & Family Status
When meeting someone new in a casual environment, it is not uncommon for people to discuss their children and/or spouse. However, in an interview, asking someone about their children, spouse or future plans regarding the two is illegal. Interviewers can ask about your willingness to travel or your availability to meet the required schedule. They can also ask how long you plan to be with the company or where you see yourself in the future. Questions such as:
- Are you married?
- Are you planning to start a family?
- Do you have any kids?
- How old are your kids?
If for some reason the interviewer asks about your family or marital status, they may be looking to find out if you can handle the workload and schedule. In this case, simply state that you can perform all of the essential functions and schedule requirements of the job.
Often, an interview will be able to guess or estimate your age on appearance and work experience. You may hear a lot about age discrimination in the workplace working against both the older and younger generations. It's the interviewer's responsibility to ensure that age is not considered when choosing a candidate.
An interviewer can ask, "Are you over the age of 18?" if it specifically pertains to the job requirements. However, an interviewer cannot ask how old you are directly. If they do, simply state that you are over 18 (or if there is another minimum requirement, such as 21) and that you are able to perform the essential job functions.
Religion in the workplace has always existed, however employer's accommodations to various religious practices is becoming more prevalent. Even if well-intentioned, an employer cannot ask you the following:
- Are you religious?
- What religion are you?
- Do you need time off for your religious holidays?
- What church do you belong to?
As mentioned earlier, employers are not allowed to make employment decisions based on religion. If they do ask you any of the above, simply let them know that you are able to perform the essential job functions and meet the schedule requirements. (Seeing a pattern here?)
Citizenship, Race, Nationality
In today's political climate, this subject is a very hot topic. A person's citizenship, race or nationality should have no bearing on the job functions. You may here the common question, "Are you legally allowed to work in the United States?" or "Do you now or will you in the future require sponsorship?" These questions are absolutely legal. Although an employer may not consider citizenship, race or nationality employers still must hire persons legally allowed to work in the US.
Interviewer's are not allow to ask:
- What's your race?
- Where were you born?
- Are you a US citizen?
- I notice you have an accent, where are you from?
If they do ask you any of the above (or any illegal questions at all), you do have the right to refuse to answer. You can also let them know that you are legally allowed to work in the United States and can meet the schedule requirements of the job.
In this case, we are referring to your gender as well as interacting with the other genders you will be working with. In most cases, an interviewer will be able to identify your gender without asking. An interviewer cannot ask, "What is your gender?" This is the case even if they are trying to be politically correct and ask, "What gender do you identify with?" Both of those questions are illegal unless it specifically pertains to the job.
Interviewers may also use gender to describe certain scenarios such as, "As a woman, how do you deal with a team of all men?" This is also not an acceptable question, however there are ways around it.
Again, you have the right to refuse to answer the question or let them know that you are able to perform all of the essential job functions and work well on a team.
A common question you will see during the job application process is, “Are you able to perform all essential job functions with reasonable accommodations?” This is a completely legal and appropriate question. This may even include listing the requirements such a standing for long periods of time or lifting up to 80lbs regularly.
Interviewers cannot ask:
- Are you disabled?
- What is your height/weight?
- What mental or physical disabilities do you have?
- Are you taking any prescription drugs? If so, what are you taking?
All of these questions should be politely refused or redirected to ensure that you can fulfill essential job functions.
The important word to remember here is conviction. Interviews can ask you about convicted crimes as it relates to the job you will performing. Some examples of questions they cannot ask are:
- Have you ever been arrested?
- Have you ever been addicted to drugs or sold drugs?
- Have you even been involved in a political demonstration or protest?
- Have you ever done any criminal activity?
If you have been convicted of a crime that pertains to what you will be doing, then a potential employer may ask you about that situation. For example, if you are going to be a valet driver, a potential employer may want to know if you have been convicted of car theft. Again, convicted is the key word. If you have been arrested, but not convicted, it should not be used in an employment decision.
An interview cannot ask you about your credit unless it specifically pertains to your job, such as a position that handles the exchange of monies. For some positions, it may be required that your credit report be ran, and you have to give authorization to do so.
If it is an industry not involving monetary exchanges or banking, do not be afraid to ask what the importance is for your credit report to be run for job consideration. We just suggest you maintain a polite tone when doing so, as to not disrupt your potential for being offered the job.
Your (Potential) Future Employer
It may be fair to point out that while an interview may have made a brief mistake, if there are multiple illegal questions asked, or if it seems as if these questions are part of their normal procedure, it may be time to consider a different organization.
Although it may be an innocent mistake in the procedure, an organization leaving themselves open to such an ethical liability is not a great sign. It may pose as an even larger, brighter red flag if the mistake was actually intentional.
In any case, if you are faced with an illegal question you may answer it as described above or you do have the right to refuse to answer altogether. If you do refuse to answer, do it politely. The interview may not have even realized what they had just asked and will often be very understanding.