What to do when you're asked inappropriate questions in the job interview
Which Questions are Considered "Inappropriate"?
So, you’ve been invited to interview and you really want this job. You arrive on time, you’ve done your homework, and you sit down with the hiring manager… and then it happens. For some reason, he or she is asking you things you don’t think are relevant to the position. Now you’re wondering how to handle this – you don’t want to appear rude or argumentative, but you also don’t want to answer personal questions that shouldn’t be asked.
The interviewer may simply be trying to determine if you’re a good fit for the job and he/she may not even realize these questions are inappropriate: questions about your religion, family status, age, ethnic background or even sexual orientation. Regardless, these types of questions are off-limits and are likely not relevant to your ability to do the job.
It’s not strictly “illegal” to ask certain questions unrelated to the job for which you’re applying. However, if an employer decides not to hire you because of any one of these questions, that is considered discriminatory and is illegal. Inappropriate questions relate to things like:
- National origin
- Marital/family status
According to career expert, Alison Doyle, “job requirements based on an employee’s gender, national origin, religion, or age can be used in very limited circumstances. They are lawful only when an employer can demonstrate that they are bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQs) that are reasonably necessary to the normal operation of business.” For example, if you’re applying to be a bartender, it is appropriate to determine if you’re at or above the required minimum age to serve and mix alcoholic drinks.
How to Handle Inappropriate Questions
If you find a question offensive or you think it is inappropriate, you can simply refuse to answer the question or choose to end the interview. Maybe the company’s policies are reflected in this question and you need to decide if you are going to be comfortable working there. If you think you understand the intent of the question, you can attempt to address that without giving specific details about your personal life.
Interview questions should be focused on the behaviors, skills, and experience needed to perform the job. If the discussion strays from those topics, try to bring it back on track.
Maria Jimena Rivera, Director of the Office of Career Services at the University Of Connecticut School Of Law, has a few suggestions for those concerned with inappropriate questions:
- First of all, stay calm and act professionally.
- Consider the intent of the question and ask the interviewer to clarify how that relates to the job.
For example, if you are asked if you speak Spanish at home, you may inquire why they are asking. If they are looking for an applicant who is fluent and can work with their Latin American clients (or guests), you now understand the intent of the question is about foreign language ability.
- Try to re-direct the conversation to the job skills in question.
For example, if you are asked if you have children, or do you plan to have children, you can answer based on what is the underlying concern. Are they asking if you can meet a demanding work schedule? You can answer by stating you can meet the time requirements of the position. If they are asking because they want to know if you’ll stay in the job long-term, you can point to your prior positions and length of employment on your resume.
- Bear in mind that most discrimination is not deliberate, but may simply be the result of an interviewer being ignorant of the law. It isn’t necessarily intentional.
Remember, although it’s widely believed that these questions are illegal, that’s not precisely the case. What’s illegal is to base a hiring decision on the answers to these questions. Alison Green, author of Ask a Manger blog, explains that “since the employer can’t factor in your answers, there’s no point in asking them and smart interviewers don’t.”
If you believe you’ve been discriminated against and wish to file a claim, contact your local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office to file a charge.
Remember, be respectful and know your rights. Give your interviewer the benefit of the doubt by redirecting the question or trying to answer its intent, as it relates to the job at hand. Remain in control, be tactful and stay focused on the qualities, experience and commitment you bring to the position.