Illegal Interview Questions

When I was teaching Professional Development to college students, this topic was one of the most popular. Actually, the whole section on interviewing seemed to get the students’ attention.

My theory about interview questions is that if it makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s likely an unlawful inquiry. Having said that, I also take a “big picture” view of the situation – many of the mistakes are innocent. Sometimes due to ignorance of current guidelines, other times because the interviewer is just trying to be friendly and set a conversational tone. The purpose of having these guidelines is to protect applicants from discrimination in hiring. Keep that purpose in mind…

One student had been asked during an interview if he was gay. Exactly how do you respond to that? Well, I hope I’d have the courage to ask the interviewer how that question pertained to the job. The student got up and left. Probably a smart move on his part, dontchathink? If someone in a position of authority was asking such a blatant unlawful question during an interview, I can only imagine what the work environment would be like!

Years ago, I went through a multiple interview process with various members of the company’s senior management team. One vice president, who was a “seasoned” male, asked me if my husband was supportive of me taking a new position, and whether I was planning on “starting a family”. Geesh! (Keep in mind that this happened in Texas) I don’t know if my reaction registered shock and horror, but I do remember asking a follow-up question about what his concern was. His response was that, because the job required international travel, he was just wondering if this would be an issue. Okay dokey. Now, asking about commitments that would interfer ewith my work responsibilities is a perfectly legal inquiry. He just didn’t know how to properly ask the question. Remember… benefit of the doubt here.

So, here’s a quick rundown of some things that you SHOULD NOT be asked during an interview:

– Where you live. Seriously, this is an unlawful question when it’s asked beyond the extent of needing to facilitate contact with the applicant. This includes whether you rent, own, and who you live with.

– Name. It’s unlawful to be asked anything that would divulge your marital status, ancestry, national origin or descent. So, if you ask someone from Canada if you detect a Midwestern accent – gotcha. That’s an unlawful inquiry (luckily, Canadians are polite and friendly).

– Organizations. Professional organizations are A-OK. Asking what organizations, clubs, societies and lodges to which the applicant belongs is unlawful.

– Family. Asking whether the applicant has child care arrangements… well, that’s just inappropriate – and it’s unlawful. The only inquiries would be whether the applicant can meet specified work schedules or has commitments that would prevent him or her from meeting attendance requirements.

So if you find yourself in an interview and you’re feeling like an unlawful inquiry has been made, what should you do? I’m not suggesting that you stop the interview or even point out that an error has been made. Rather, ask how that question is relevant to the job being discussed. This gives the interviewer a graceful way out without embarrassing him or her (remember, I suggest giving them the benefit of the doubt). Hopefully, the interviewer will catch his or her mistake and correct it. If they don’t correct themselves, I would suggest replying, rather sheepishly, that you don’t feel comfortable divulging that information. A soft approach works best.