In a job interview, the only thing you want to concern yourself with is getting hired, so you want to answer all the questions right.

But what do you do if you are asked a question that is designed to discriminate against you?

Employers sometimes ask questions that are inappropriate or even illegal.  Some of them don’t know any better.  Others make unlawful queries to get at a legal concern, such as dependability.  How do you answer questions in a way that meets your objective-to turn all employment interviews into job offers?

There are a number of questions that are off-limits and shouldn’t be answered in your job interview.  Basically, illegal interview questions are any questions that have to do with:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Color
  • Gender
  • National origin
  • Birthplace
  • Marital/Parental/Family status
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Financial position / credit (unless the position applied for requires the handling of money or alternatively a position of trust i.e. executive management)

The tricky thing is how to handle these questions.  Always remember that you don’t have to answer any questions in a job interview that are not related to your job, in other words:  inherent requirements of the job.

How to Differentiate Between Illegal and Legal Interview Questions

The interviewers can ask questions that are directly related to the job or legal requirements.  It all depends on the wording. Here are two examples:

  1. “How long has your family been in this country?” is inappropriate, but it is ok to ask, “Are you eligible to work in this country?” as it would be illegal for the employer to hire someone who isn’t eligible.
  2. Likewise, interviewers can’t ask, “What are your arrangements for child care?” but they can ask, “Are you able to work a 9-to-5 schedule?” if that’s what the job requires, and if every applicant is asked the same thing.
  3. Interviewers can’t ask whether you are disabled but they can ask whether you would be able to perform duties such as picking up 50kg of equipment if the job requires that.

When you’re asked an improper question, you have 3 choices:

  1. You can refuse to answer, and tell the employer you think the question is improper.
  2. You can swallow your pride and your privacy by answer the question asked.
  3. You can answer the legitimate concern that probably lies behind the wrongful question, and ignore the improper question itself- the best of both worlds.

Don’t answer these questions

Here are more questions that can and can’t be asked, according to HR professionals.  In all circumstances, try to find out why an interviewer is asking a particular off-limits question, and then steer the conversation into addressing particular, relevant concerns:

Question #1:  Have you ever been arrested?

It’s inappropriate to ask if a job seeker has ever been arrested, but it is permissible to ask if he/she has ever been convicted of a specific type of crime that relates to the job.

Question #2:  Are you married?

While it’s permissible for interviewers to ask whether you have ever used another name in work or academic situations, it’s not permissible for them to ask questions about your maiden name or marital status.

Question #3: What religious holidays do you practice?

It’s not permissible to ask what religion job seekers practice, what religious holidays they observe, or their religious affiliations. If an interviewer probes these verboten areas, try to find out what the interviewer is concerned about and to address these concerns: working certain days of the week, for example, could be a legitimate concern.

Question #4:  Do you have any children?

Don’t answer questions about whether you have children or what your child-bearing plans are, but do explain whether you’re available to work overtime or whether you can travel, particularly on short notice.

Question #5: What country are you from?

It’s illegal to ask a job seeker about his/her nationality, citizen status, native language, or how long he/she’s lived in the country. If asked, instead explain that you’re legally able to work in the country.

Question #6:  Is English your first language? OR What is your first language?

The problem is that this question could be used to determine national origin. The employer can ask whether you know a particular language only if it is required for the job. For example, if job responsibilities include supporting French-speaking customers, it’s fair to ask if you speak French.

Question #7:  Do you socially smoke / drink? OR When was the last time you used illegal drugs?

It’s inappropriate to ask job seekers if they smoke, drink or take drugs. Your height, weight, use of sick days, presence of disabilities or sicknesses is similarly off limits. Interviewers do have the right to ask if you’ve violated company policies regarding alcohol or tobacco, whether you use illegal drugs (as opposed to simply “drugs”), whether you’re able to lift a given weight or reach items on shelves that are at a particular height, how many workdays you missed in the past year, whether you’re physically capable of executing the position’s specific duties, and whether you can perform the job with or without reasonable accommodations.

Question #8:  Where do you live?

It is inappropriate to ask how far away a job seeker lives, but it’s permissible to ask if the candidate can start work at a given hour or if he is willing to relocate.

Always remember that if the interviewer makes you uncomfortable by asking inappropriate questions then this might be a strong indication that this is not a company you want to work for. The interview is as much for you to figure out whether the company is right for you, as it is the other way around.

About The Author

Yolande Wissing has an Advanced Diploma in Hospitality Management. Her career started in the Hospitality sector as a Front Court & Banqueting Manager. She then spent 2 years at @lantic in Events Coordination and Marketing where she won Top Performer award for Marketing in 2010 and 2012. You can connect to her on LinkedIn.

Article References:


Comments are closed.