What to Do When Asked an Unlawful or Inappropriate Interview Question

As a rule of thumb, only questions that are specifically job or employment related should ever be asked in an interview. Yet according to a recent Yahoo! Hot Jobs reader poll, almost two thirds of the respondents said that they had been asked an unlawful or inappropriate question during a job interview. Unlawful interview questions are those which ask about prohibited topics, such as age, race, child care, or marital status, as protected by federal law under the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and related legislation. Inappropriate interview questions are those whose answers call for personal or possibly embarrassing information not related to the applicant’s qualifications for the job.

Interviewers who ask unlawful or inappropriate interview questions usually do so out of ignorance. This is because many interviewers come from the ranks of operational employees, and often receive little or no training in what is lawful or appropriate to ask in an interview.

There are several ways an applicant might respond to being asked an unlawful or inappropriate interview question. Suppose the interviewer asks something like, “Do you have adequate child care for this position:”

1. Refuse to answer the question, stating that it is unlawful or inappropriate. This takes an adversarial approach and accuses the interviewer. While factually correct, such an approach will likely mark the applicant as combative, confrontational, and easily offended. Making the interviewer wrong will rarely win positive points. Example response: “You’ve just asked me an unlawful question that I will not answer. All you need to know is that I can do this job.”

2. Ignore the question as if it had not been asked. Here, the applicant might state he or she doesn’t understand the question, or may simply talk about something not related to the question at all. This approach may appear awkward or unfocused, and will likely not be very effective. Example response: pause to think…“the best quality I possess is that I complete today’s tasks today, and start each new day with a clean plate.”

3. Answer the question with appropriate job-related information. Assuming the question was asked out of ignorance, the applicant should answer the real concern behind the question with factual job-related information. Example response: “During my past years of employment I’ve had a near-perfect record of on-time attendance. I am confident that I can work all of the shifts required for this position and maintain my strong attendance record.”

Clearly the third approach will be the one that gives the interviewer the information he or she was seeking without appearing confrontational or unprepared. The answer is delivered smoothly in a friendly relaxed way, without a negative visceral reaction to the question. The interviewer does not notice his or her question was unlawful or inappropriate. And the candidate has had an opportunity to showcase his or her positive attributes.

One final thought: in the rare event the interviewer is continues to ask a series of unlawful or inappropriate questions, the candidate should remain professional, but report such behavior immediately to the employer’s HR department.

Boyer Management Group works with employers and job seekers alike to help both become more successful. For employers, we offer world-class talent acquisition and onboarding tools, training and programs, including management/leadership development training, as well as programs for new managers and supervisors. For job seekers, we offer the world’s first assessment to measure an individual’s knowledge and awareness of current and emerging career search best practices, along with the educational programs to support higher ed curriculum, career coaches and individual job seekers. To find out more, please visit us at info@boyermanagement.com, or call us at 215-942-0982.


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