Most of us are aware that federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against an employee or applicant because of race, color, gender, religious beliefs, national origin, disability, or age. While these laws are designed to protect us from discrimination, they do not always prevent us from being asked illegal questions during an interview.
If you suspect that you may be asked an illegal question, it is important to prepare your response in advance. It is equally important that you refrain from jumping to conclusions when faced with an illegal question.
Always assume that the interviewer has inadvertently strayed into forbidden waters. This is more likely to happen with inexperienced hiring managers. Human resources professionals know the ropes and understand the consequences of asking inappropriate questions; they generally avoid them at all costs.
If you are asked an illegal question, always assume the interviewer is unaware that he has done so until he proves otherwise. It makes more sense to give the interviewer the benefit of the doubt rather than to immediately get defensive.
There are three approaches to responding to illegal questions. You can choose to answer the question, question the relevancy of it, or respond without providing the information requested.
You might choose to answer the question if you desperately need the job and answering it won’t negatively impact your candidacy. For example, if asked, “Do you have children?” and I don’t have children, I might choose to answer, “No” and leave it at that.
If I have children, I might still choose to answer because I need to put food on the table, I could say, “Yes, my parents take care of my daughter while I am at work.”
You can choose to question the relevancy of their inquiry by asking a question. “I’m not sure I understand how that information is relevant to the position. Could you please help me understand?” It is important to watch that your tone is not defensive or angry. Sometimes simply asking this alerts the interviewer to the fact that he has overstepped his boundaries. It gives him a chance to pause, reflect and rethink his inquiry. If it is apparent that he intends to continue along the same lines, you can always end the conversation.
You can choose to respond without providing the information requested. That might sound something like, “Wow, that’s an interesting question. I’ve never been asked that in an interview.” This is followed by silence. Once again this provides the interviewer with an opportunity to withdraw the question with his dignity intact and move on to more relevant ones.
One of my clients worked in a bank and was frequently asked about the origin of her last name which didn’t seem to fit her appearance. This irritated her and she was convinced that the issue would come up during an interview. Although I thought it unlikely that this issue would surface during an interview, we practiced a non- defensive response that she would be comfortable delivering and which would not have a negative impact on the interview. The greatly reduced her pre-interview jitters and I am happy to report the origin of her last name never came up.
Preparation is the key to success in any interview. Anticipating and practicing responses to likely questions increases your comfort level and ability to be your best.
Mary Jeanne Vincent is a career expert and strategist with a private coaching practice in Monterey. She may be reached at 831.657.9151 or firstname.lastname@example.org.