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What do I say if someone asks an inappropriate question in a job interview?

Student Career Placement Consultant

Before I suggest how to answer an inappropriate question, it’s important that you understand what kind of questions we are talking about here. In the United States, employers are not allowed to ask job applicants questions about:

  • Age: Some jobs, such as bartending, do have legally required age restrictions, so employers are allowed to ask if you meet an age requirement. Otherwise, age is off the table. 
  • Marital status: Some employers may attempt to get around this with women—who can be the targets of discrimination based on marriage or parenthood—by asking if they want to be addressed as Miss, Ms., or Mrs., or by asking about their maiden name. Those aren’t legal, either!
  • Gender: This will most likely come up if you are applying for a job that is most typically held by someone of a different gender. They can ask if you have experience with the type of work, but they can’t say things like, “We usually hire women for this job. Why do you want to do women’s work?” or “We usually hire men for this job. What makes you think you can handle it?”
  • Disabilities: They cannot ask about mental, psychological, or physical disabilities—or about past illnesses or surgeries—and if they hire you, and you do have a disability, they have to accommodate it. So they may ask you if you can perform the duties of the job without any accommodation. While we’re at it, they can’t ask about your height or weight either. (However, employers have been known to discriminate based on height and weight without having asked you about it.)
  • Drug, alcohol, or tobacco use: However, they can ask if you have ever used illegal drugs, and they can make drug testing a requirement of the position.
  • Religion: They can’t ask. However, they may need to know depending on requirements for special days off that would cause scheduling problems or concerns, so this one is a bit tricky. If this is a concern for you, carefully consider how you want to navigate questions about your religion, perhaps seeking advice from your co-religionists.
  • Citizenship status: They are allowed ask if you are authorized to work in the U.S., but not if you are a citizen.
  • Nationality or heritage: While this is related to citizenship status, it can be a very different question. Employers should not ask where you were born, where your family came from, or what type of accent you have.
  • Race: You may be asked to reveal your race for affirmative action purposes, but providing that information has to be optional.
  • Pregnancy: Employers cannot ask women if they are pregnant or plan to get pregnant, and they can’t ask men if they’re planning to have a family. 
  • Finances: They can’t ask if you’ve ever been bankrupt, or have a mortgage, or about any other type of debt. However, for some jobs it is a requirement that you have good credit, so they are allowed to do a credit check in those situations.
  • Arrest record: They can’t ask if you’ve been arrested, but they can ask if you’ve been convicted of a felony.
  • Organizational memberships: They can ask about membership in professional organizations, but not about membership in religious, civic, political, or social organizations.

Now that you have reviewed the list, you can plan ahead. Is there anything about you or your application that may cause the employer concern? If so, prepare your response. When you are in an interview, and you are faced with an inappropriate question, the following suggestions may help you decide how to answer.

  • Try to figure out why the interviewer has asked a specific, unallowable question and respond to the appropriate concern. For example, if you’re not a native speaker of English, the interviewer might be concerned about your eligibility to work in the U.S. or your written communication skills.
  • Don’t be confrontational or tell the interviewer that the question is illegal. Ask for clarification, explain that you don’t understand the relevance, or reply with a question of your own.
  • Leave if it gets really inappropriate. If the interviewer is blatantly asking inappropriate questions that demonstrate a lack of respect, you need to stand up for yourself and get out of there. Later, you can choose whether or not to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Use the interview as an opportunity to learn more about the organization and its values. If they are asking lots of inappropriate questions, is this really a place where you want to work?

One more thing to be aware of is that some employers have asked applicants for their social media site passwords or have insisted that applicants log on to their site and surf it while the interviewer watches over their shoulder—it’s called “shoulder surfing”! Some states have passed, or are in the process of passing, laws that prohibit this practice, and its use may be declining anyway. (You can check on the law in your state here.) But it’s one more thing to be aware of as you prepare for interviews ... clean up your social media sites!

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