Handling illegal interview questions

What do you do when an illegal question is asked during an interview?

Michigan State University Extension’s 4-H Youth Development has many resources to help youth prepare for interviews. We teach them how to sit, dress and properly answer questions. One thing we typically do not do is prepare for answering or responding to illegal interview questions; we may mention this, but we do not focus much time on this topic.

During an interview, it is illegal to ask questions related to personal information. Personal information can be any of the following: your race, gender, religion, marital status, disabilities, ethnic background, country of origin, sexual preferences, age, etc.

Consider this. The interview is going smoothly, and then out of the blue, there it is – the illegal question. What do you do? Keep your cool. Realize that most illegal questions are asked out of ignorance. The interviewer doesn’t know it’s illegal. Sometimes the interviewer will innocently ask something like, “Marino, is that a Spanish name?” The interviewer is trying to make small talk, but is crossing a line. According to Michigan State University Career Services Network, illegal questions can be handled in different ways.

Evaluate what you think to be the interviewer’s motive. Are they innocently asking something that is inappropriate, or are they going to use your answer maliciously in a discriminatory manner? If they seem to be unaware of how inappropriate the question is, you can:

  1. Answer it briefly and move on to something else.
  2. Ignore it altogether and redirect the conversation.
  3. Answer in relation to the position. Example: You are asked, “Do you have children? How reliable is your childcare?” You answer could be, “My childcare provider is very reliable and I have alternate arrangements in case of emergency. My children will not affect my work performance.” Or, you may be asked, “Are you married?” You can respond with, “Is that relevant to this position?”

If you think the interviewer is using the illegal question to discriminate against you, then you should say something. If you are offended by the question and think it is being used inappropriately, try to be as polite as possible given the situation and tell the employer the question is illegal, offensive and inappropriate. If the situation warrants action, it is acceptable for you to say, “I’m sorry, but that question is offensive to me as well as being illegal, and I do not wish to continue our interview,” and then leave.

More information on career preparation topics can be found on the 4-H Career Preparation website.

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