Handling Out-of-Bounds Job Interview Questions

Going to a job interview and answering questions can be stressful. But being asked certain questions can take you over the top into uncharted territory. There are firm rules and laws about interviews and what questions cannot legitimately be asked. Knowing those rules and laws can save your job prospects. Or they can put the interviewer into hot water.

Some questions are illegal in most interview situations:

What are your disabilities or health problems?

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it illegal to ask most questions about disabilities. Asking for a medical exam before a job offer is made is also illegal. Except in very, very limited cases it’s also illegal to ask about the last time you were hospitalized or if you ever has psychiatry treatments.

An interviewer is permitted to ask about health issues or disabilities which will clearly interfere with job performance. If you can’t lift the weight of objects you will deal with on the job, the employer is entitled to know. Same goes for your mobility, if the job requires you to go from one place to another under your own power.

Once an actual job offer is made the employer may inquire about disabilities–if they will interfere with job performance and if reasonable accommodations must be made.

Your age?

Most of the time this question is not permitted. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act was written to protect those age 40 and over. There are a few legitimate exceptions. Some jobs have legal age limits. Some jobs require physical skills only younger people have.

Are you a US citizen?

Most jobs should be open to anyone who qualifies, whether or not they are US citizens. Some jobs involve national security. In those cases citizenship may be a legitimate issue. A worker’s authorization to work in the US–holding a green card, for instance–is usually a permissible question.

Questions that are on the legal edge

Some questions are legal, but if handled poorly could result in bias, which is not legal.

What is your religion?

If the job is for the position as a congregation leader of a particular religion, that question can be asked. But most jobs by far are beyond the realm where religious membership can be asked. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers religious discrimination. For example, a clerk at a store that is run by a church is a job that does not require religious membership, so religion cannot be asked for that job.

What is your arrest record? What is your conviction record?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that such questions are not allowed. Questions about actual criminal convictions-especially felonies- are likely to be allowed. In some cases, such as jobs that cause regular exposure to children, they may be required.

What is your race?

Some questions about race and ethnic background are allowed–but they are limited.

Are you married? Do you take care of your children or aging parents?

This can be a touchy area, even though it is not clearly illegal. If the questions are asked as part of a pattern of discriminating against women, they are not permissible.

Questions about marriage are usually not covered by federal law. Many times they are covered by state law.

How to answer

There is no single correct way to answer an illegal or borderline question asked in a job interview. A lot of judgment is involved. Here are some options to consider:

–One way is to answer completely. Shape your answer so it shows your strengths and skills. You may possibly want to show the interviewer that you are good at answering tough questions without losing your concentration or poise.

–Make your answers as brief as possible. A brief answer gives the interviewer less rope with which to hang you. Some people think a quick, humorous answer works. But that depends on a lot, such as your skill being a humorist–a skill not everyone has.

–Do not answer a question you are sure is over the line. Before the interview prepare a polite way of refusing to answer a loaded question. You might say something like: “As far as I can tell that question doesn’t have anything to do with my job qualifications.” Responding with a smile is usually better than responding with hostility. Make sure you do not lie. Lies can come back to haunt you since they are a legitimate ground to fire you if you get the job and are found out later.

–Inquire how the question relates to the job. Do this as politely and pleasantly as possible. Your first reaction to the question may be negative. But it is possible the interviewer can explain a legitimate need for the question. So make sure you do not box yourself in by being too defensive or accusing.

If you think something bad happened in the interview

It is a very good idea to make careful notes about the interview as soon as possible. If you ever file a complaint or do something legal to protect your rights, your notes could be your best defense. Write down the time you make your notes. If your notes are made within minutes of the meeting, they are more valuable than if you wait a week to write something down.