They say that you have to submit 100 job applications just to get one interview, so what happens when you finally land one? With any luck, you’ll be blowing them out of the water! Fast forward to the day of the interview, and it’s going great. You’re building rapport, crafting a strong narrative for your years of experience, and the hiring manager’s head seems to be nodding in tune with your responses. You’ve been thrown a couple of softballs to get warmed up and a couple of trick ones to show how you think on your feet.
Then, all of a sudden, you get thrown a pitch from left field: that’s a nice engagement ring, comments your interviewer. Are you getting married this year? If alarm bells aren’t sounding in your mind already, they should be – this is a classic example of a not-so-innocent, seemingly-benign, and entirely illegal interview question. While no one is going to burst in and read your interviewer their legal rights before making an arrest, this and many other types of questions can be grounds for filing a discriminatory complaint.
But, before we even get there, let’s avoid getting there, shall we? If this is a position you really want, then you might not want to burn bridges so quickly. Here are five illegal interview questions and how you can field them in the right way:
1. Are you comfortable working for a female boss?
Hiring decisions should be based on behavioral evaluations and your past experience. In this case, while the interviewer is not exactly asking you to identify with a particular gender, they’re inserting the theme into the question in general. Whether your boss is female or male is not relevant information so take that position in your mind when crafting your response.
Your response can focus on “management” instead, keeping it gender neutral: “I’ve worked well with all my previous senior managers and I’m a team player who has been part of multiple projects at a time”.
2. Your potential team members and you would have a significant age gap. Would this be a problem for you?
Once again, this illegal interview question is phrased in such an indirect manner that it seems perfectly innocent. While it doesn’t directly ask you to disclose your age, it certainly does put you in the uncomfortable position of having to evaluate how your age rather than your experience would fare in a team.
The discrimination inherent in this question can go both ways. If you’re a younger person with relevant experience, you could feel intimidated by members of an older team not because you think you have anything to worry about but because this question suggests that it’s a point of concern. Or, if you’re older, with the relevant experience that would otherwise make you the right candidate for this position, it could be uncomfortable thinking about fitting in to a team of younger people.
So how do you handle this one? With grace and ease, once again bringing the spotlight back to you (where it rightly should be!) instead of your age: “I would feel very comfortable working in a team of experienced and like-minded individuals because it is an environment I have thrived in before, as evidenced by my previous positions”.
Round one, You!
3. Where are you from?
Questions regarding your nationality, or that require you to reveal any ancestry are strictly discriminatory and, regardless of how it’s phrased, you should keep your ears open for them.
Only respond to questions that are relevant to the job or that have been specifically advertised in the job description. For example, if an interviewer asks, “Do you speak any language other than English?” that is not allowed. But if the job you’re vying for requires bilingualism, interviewers are well within their rights to ask if you’re fluent in both languages required.
4. When was your last credit check performed?
This is an interesting one because, unlike the previous examples, it’s quite direct and yet wouldn’t automatically register in our minds as an illegal interview question. You may think that the nature of the job might be an exception – financial positions in a bank, for example – but you’d be wrong.
The only time you should be asked about your credit history and rating, up front, is when getting a loan of any type. Other than that, this has no real-world relevancy. And the best part? Large corporations that hire for senior positions often have the practice of performing a background check on a candidate anyway. Which means they have the resources to find the answer themselves and you should not be put in the position of revealing it.
You can politely decline to answer or even ask the interviewer to clarify which part of the job this would pertain to. It will get your point across – without teeth.
5. Are you willing to make arrangements for childcare to cover any potential overtime?
This question turns your personal and family status into a liability. While it seems like the interviewer and company is watching out for your commitments and, it could be argued, warning you that overtime is often a possibility with the position, it’s benign outer cover is wrapping a more distasteful center: the idea that parents who have commitments outside of the workplace will be discounted.
You want to work for a company where merit counts first: your work, behavior and performance as directly related to deliverables are the only things that should count when it comes to hiring, firing and promotions.
To field this one, try to put your own spin on a variation of this: “I’m very excited about the potential for long-term growth in your company and I am open to staying flexible and doing what I can to give the position the best of my abilities. My past experience shows that I’m more than capable of performing the duties this position calls for.”
When you’re faced with illegal questions, often it’s the phrasing that will set you off. Interviewers can ask questions in a certain way that do not automatically seem like the question has any illegal dimension and yet you have to be on the lookout for factors related to demographics. So if it in any remote way requires you to disclose information about political and/or religious affiliations, gender, age, marital status, and any of the examples listed above, steer clear.
You can always maintain your boundaries and control with a polite but firm response such as, “There is nothing in my past/present circumstance that would affect my ability to perform my duties related to this job”. This kind of response is succinct and cordial.
And, lastly, never feel cornered, as though you don’t have options. If you face illegal interview questions at any time you can either re-pivot and choose simply to not pursue the discussion, answer with a polite “no”, like in our example, or reframe the question, bringing it back to the job at hand, the position in general and your experience as it relates.
If all else fails, remember: there are plenty of other fish in the sea!
Sarah Merekar is primarily a storyteller who loves to work with and in several different mediums, on various platforms and see how these co-exist and complement each other. She loves hacking product sales and understanding how content creation has an effect on this process. The content she creates for clients is high quality, highly tailored, and on brand, specifically in the form of digital & brand copywriting, design and video.