A job interview is awkward enough as it is, but it can get really uncomfortable when an employer starts asking questions that don’t relate to your professional background or skills. How should you respond when an interviewer wants to know whether you have kids, whether you have a disability, or how long you’ve lived in the United States?
Knowing how to handle out-of-line, potentially illegal job interview questions begins with knowing which questions employers shouldn’t be asking in the first place. Employers are prohibited from discriminating during hiring based on a candidate’s race, national origin, or age. Although questions related to these topics aren’t technically illegal, employers that ask them open themselves up to charges of discrimination, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Many employers haven’t gotten the memo that some questions should be off limits, though. About one in five employers have inadvertently asked an illegal question in a job interview, a CareerBuilder survey found.
Unfortunately, there’s no ideal way for a job seeker to handle an inappropriate or illegal job interview question. Politely refusing to respond is one option, but it could take you out of the running for the position. Answering honestly is another option, but that could hurt you, too, because you might reveal information that also leads to a rejection.
Sometimes, the best option is to be as careful as possible in your answer. You can do your best to avoid sharing information an employer might use against you while attempting to provide the information the interviewer is really trying to get at. Questions about children, for example, might really be an inexperienced interviewer’s way of asking about your ability to work a set schedule. An interviewer who asks about disabilities might want to know whether you can perform certain necessary job tasks. Sometimes, an inappropriate question is a warning sign you should avoid the employer entirely.
Here are 16 illegal job interview questions and how to handle them.
1. Are you a native English speaker?
Employers shouldn’t be asking questions that could lead to discrimination based on your national origin, including those about whether you’re a native English speaker, according to Workplace Fairness. Yet interviewers might ask questions that touch on those subjects either out of ignorance or outright bias. Employers can ask you to take an English proficiency test, provided all applicants are required to take the same test.
How to respond: Discuss your strong oral and written communication skills without getting into whether English is your first, second, or fifth language.
2. Where are you from originally?
An interviewer might make assumptions about your personal background and citizenship status based on your accent or skin color. They might try to verify those assumptions with a question, such as the one above, even though your ethnicity, race, or country of origin has no bearing on your ability to do the job. But an employer can ask whether you’re legally allowed to work in the U.S.
How to respond: Provide a brief answer, such as, “I’m from California,” or “I’ve lived a lot of different places.” Then, steer the conversation in another direction. A statement — such as, “I’ve lived in New York for the past few years and I’m currently eligible to work in the U.S.” — might address the interviewer’s concerns about whether you’re legally allowed to work in the country.
3. Are you planning to get married?
Employers asking this question might be fishing for information about your personal life for a few reasons. An interviewer might assume a married man is more likely to stick with a job long-term. Or the interviewer might believe single people will be more willing to put in long hours. These types of questions are illegal, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, because they might be a way to discriminate in hiring, particularly against women.
How to respond: Whether you’re married, engaged, or single is none of the interviewer’s business. “My focus is on my career right now” is a tactful way to deflect this question without getting into specifics about your relationship (or lack thereof).
4. Are you going to have kids?
Unfortunately, women are more likely than men to get asked this question (or questions about whether they already have children) and face discrimination as a result. But whatever your gender, it’s inappropriate for employers to ask this or any other questions related to your family and marital status.
How to respond: You can try to deflect this question by talking about how committed you are to your career. Or you might explain that if you do decide to expand your family, your work will remain a priority.
5. What holidays do you celebrate?
A question about what holidays you celebrate could be a sneaky way for an interviewer to ask about your religion. That’s a big no-no.
How to respond: Don’t feel pressure to reveal information about how you practice your faith if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. A response, such as, “I always make an effort to arrange my holiday plans and celebrations around my work schedule,” could address any concerns about your availability without revealing too much information about your specific religious practices.
6. Do you go to church?
Some interviewers won’t hesitate to ask about how and where you worship. Unless you are applying for a job at a church or other faith-based organization, which may make hiring decisions based on religion, you shouldn’t have to answer this illegal job interview question.
How to respond: “I attend services regularly” might allow you to deflect this question without getting into specifics about your faith. Alternatively, you could politely say you prefer to avoid discussing religion at work. Employers can’t refuse to hire you because you don’t share their religious beliefs or practice a faith they don’t believe in.
7. When did you graduate from high school?
Other than verifying you’re old enough to work, your age should be irrelevant in the hiring decision. Most interviewers know they should avoid asking how old you are because it opens them up to charges of age discrimination. Nonetheless, they might ask questions like the one above that will give them a rough idea of your birth date.
How to respond: If you’re not willing to reveal how old you are, a vague response and a bit of humor might suffice. If you’re obviously older, a response of “Too long ago!” can deflect the question without revealing your exact age. Younger workers might say something, such as, “Not that long ago, but I’ve been working hard ever since.”
8. Have you ever been arrested?
It might surprise you, but employers cannot consider past arrests in hiring decisions. In some states, such as New Jersey, they can’t even ask about convictions during the initial screening process (though they can ask you about this information later on).
How to respond: If you’ve never been arrested, just answer this question truthfully. If you do have an arrest record but no convictions, consider saying something, such as, “I’ve never been convicted of a crime” or “Nothing in my past would affect my ability to do this job.” People who have been convicted of a crime can contact an ex-offender advocacy group, such as New York’s Fortune Society, for advice on navigating the job search process.
9. How often do you call in sick?
Questions about your health status, including how often you need to call in sick, are verboten. However, employers can ask questions that relate to your ability to perform specific job duties (such as lifting boxes of a certain weight).
How to respond: Don’t feel you need to disclose information about any health issues in the interview. Instead, try a simple statement, such as, “I try to limit how frequently I call in sick and only miss work when it can’t be avoided.”
10. Have you ever used drugs?
Employers shouldn’t ask about drug use in general. That’s because you might feel compelled to reveal information about legitimate prescription drugs you take. Job interview questions about past illegal drug use are also forbidden. However, an employer may ask whether you are currently using illegal drugs.
How to respond: “I don’t currently use illegal drugs” should address any employer concerns about your current drug use without getting into the specifics of any past illegal drug use.
11. What are your childcare arrangements?
Employers might ask people with young kids — especially women — about their childcare arrangements. An interviewer naturally might want to know you’re not going to show up late every day or miss work because of an unreliable babysitter. Still, that doesn’t make this prying question OK.
How to respond: You don’t have to explain your day care arrangements to an interviewer, Workplace Fairness noted. However, “as a practical matter if you really want the position you are applying for, you may want to answer the interviewer’s questions. In that case, try to look past the sexist nature of the questions and see what the employer is really worried about — i.e., possible work conflicts.”
12. How do you feel about unions?
Quizzing an interviewee about whether they’re pro- or anti-union is an unfair labor practice, according to Workplace Fairness. Anti-union employers may not weed out unionized or pro-union workers during the hiring process.
How to respond: One option is to be diplomatic and avoid specifics about your personal experience or labor affiliation during a job interview. What if you’re a union member and answer this question honestly, and then the employer denies you the job? In that situation, the employer might be violating the National Labor Relations Act, and you could have a legal case.
13. Will you take a lie detector test?
Chances are your interviewer isn’t going to ask you take a polygraph during an interview. But on the off chance it does happen, you should know they are likely breaking the law. Unless you’re applying for a job at a security firm or pharmaceutical manufacturer, it’s illegal under federal law for private employers to require polygraph tests. The same rules don’t apply to government agencies though. And people who apply for jobs in law enforcement typically undergo a lie detector test.
How to respond: In the unlikely event an interviewer wants you take a lie detector test, you should decline, unless you’re looking for work in one of the few fields where this practice is legal. You can also file a complaint with the Department of Labor.
14. I see you’re in the National Guard. Do you expect to deploy anytime soon?
If you’re serving in the National Guard or the Reserves, an interviewer might wonder whether your military commitments will require you to be absent from work. Yet they can’t use the possibility that you’ll be called to duty as an excuse not to hire you. This and other forms of discrimination against members of the military and veterans are illegal.
How to respond: You can make a point to reassure your employer that you’ve never encountered problems balancing your military service with your professional career.
15. When do you expect to retire?
If you’re an older applicant, it might worry an interviewer that you don’t plan to stick around for very long. They might ask about your retirement plans to get a sense of whether they’ll need to be looking for your replacement in a year or two, but questions of this nature can lead to charges of age discrimination.
How to respond: Whether you’re hoping to retire in the next couple of years or anticipate working for a decade or more, don’t feel obligated to disclose your specific plans during the interview. Instead, you can say you love your work, this new opportunity excites you, and you have no plans to retire in the near future.
16. I can’t believe the crazy stuff Trump’s doing. Can you?
The 2016 presidential election was one of the most contentious in recent memory, and smart interviewers would be wise to steer clear of any mention of it (or politics in general) when screening candidates. Still, politics might come up, especially in the chit-chat phase of the interview. Though questions about your political affiliation aren’t strictly illegal (unless you’re applying for a federal job), the Society for Human Resource Management advises employers to avoid the topic because it can lead to charges of discrimination. In some states, employers can’t discriminate against you based on your political activities.
How to respond: Unless you’re interviewing for a job at a explicitly political organization, a noncommittal response might serve you best here, even if you and your interviewer seem to be on the same page politically. Something, such as, “I try not to let what’s going on in Washington distract me too much from my work,” or even just a polite, neutral nod can get the conversation back on safe ground.