How to Answer When You’re Asked an Illegal Interview Question

“That’s a beautiful engagement ring, are you married?”
“Do you have any children?”
“So you went to Northwestern? What year did you graduate?”

Over drinks with a new acquaintance, these questions may seem like completely harmless small talk. But in the context of a job interview, they can take an entirely new meaning. These are unethical interview questions. That’s because your answers to these questions could bias your interviewer against you, even if that’s not his or her intention.

Previously, I’ve written about the problem of illegal interview questions. Since then, I’ve been asked by a number of different job seekers about how best to answer these questions. In some cases, job seekers feel that answering these questions could be a great opportunity to establish a better rapport with their interviewer. You might discover mutual acquaintances from college or commiserate over parenting challenges.

In other cases, an interviewer may be trying to ascertain your willingness to travel for work or how a spouse or children might impact your availability to work late or entertain clients. Even more personal questions about your age, citizenship or English language skills could be used to illegally disqualify you as a candidate. Regardless of the interviewer’s intent in asking the question, revealing certain information could inadvertently bias your interviewer against you.

Of course, it’s always your prerogative to answer these questions. If you feel comfortable disclosing personal information, such as your marital status or the fact you have children, you can certainly do so. Remember, people can ask these questions, but they can’t make the basis for a hiring decision on this information.

As an executive recruiter, I work closely with candidates to ensure they’re comfortable with what can (and cannot) be asked in an interview and that they’re prepared to navigate these questions in a non-confrontational manner.

Illegal Interview Questions and Answers

1. “That’s a beautiful engagement ring, did you recently get married?

It is illegal to base hiring decisions off your marital status and/or sexual orientation. While this question may seem harmless enough to a newlywed, keep in mind that the reason for asking this question may be to weed out people who are unwilling to work late or entertain clients at night. The best approach is to clarify the interviewer’s intent with the question.

“Thanks so much for noticing. I’m excited about this position and would like to chat a bit more about XYZ job duties.”

This response is polite and clear: you understand it’s not kosher to ask about marital status, and you’re re-directly the conversation without being rude. This is a great transition into discussing job-related duties, such as the need to travel.

2. “Do you have children? Do you plan to have children? Who cares for your children when you are at work?

This question is very similar to the one about marital status. As a reminder, hiring decisions cannot be based on personal information such as your marriage status or whether or not you have children. However, a hiring decision can be based off your willingness to work certain hours, relocate, or travel for the job.

There are two options here. The first is to use this as an opportunity to ask for a clarification on job duties.

Option 1: “I’d prefer to keep this conversation focused on my professional skills, rather than my personal life. Could you clarify how this is relevant to the job in question?”

If, however, you feel comfortable discussing your children – or feel doing so would help you establish better rapport with your interviewer – it’s certainly your prerogative to answer the question directly. Even here, however, I suggest pivoting back to job duties and

Option 2: “Yes, I do. And I think you do as well, based on the photos on your desk here. It looks like your daughter is about my son’s age. I know it can be a challenge finding the right work-life balance, and I can assure you I do not allow my personal life to interfere with my professional duties.”

3. “When did you graduate?
You do not have to answer a question about your graduation year as doing so could lead to age discrimination. Again, context matters here. Perhaps your interviewer has a close friend or relative who attended the same school as you and is curious if you two overlapped. Unless such a scenario has been made abundantly clear, however, I advise against directly answering this question. Instead, bring the question back to your professional experience.

“I can tell you that I definitely graduated from [SCHOOL] with a degree in [SUBJECT] and that I have more than 10 years of relevant industry experience.”

4. “Are you a U.S. citizen?”
This is a common question that comes up for job applicants who are on a visa. Interviewers cannot legally ask about your citizenship. It is legal for the interviewer to ask whether you are legally authorized to work in the US. I recommend a response like this:

“I am legally authorized to work in the United States. Are you asking about my ability to travel, work overtime, or relocate for this position?”

You can then volunteer additional information in response to the question, as needed.

5. “Is English your first language?
Again, this is a tricky question as there’s an implicit bias: perhaps you’re not legally a U.S. resident or perhaps the interviewer is worried about whether your English skills are suitable for the job.

I’m fluent in two languages, and whenever I’ve been asked this question in the past, I’ve responded accordingly: “I am 100% fluent in English and Cantonese.”

As with the previous questions, I recommend bringing this one back to the job at hand.

“I’m glad you asked. As you can tell from this conversation and as my resume demonstrates, I’m certainly fluent in English. Are there any additional language requirements for this job I should know about? I’m proficient in [insert other language/languages here].”

Additional Considerations

Remember, at the end of the day, how you answer an illegal interview question is up to you. Consider the intent behind the question, your rapport with the interviewer, and whether you feel comfortable disclosing certain personal details. You never have to answer a personal question directly. At any time you can always say, “I’d prefer to keep this conversation focused on my professional skills, rather than my personal life. Could you clarify how this is relevant to the job in question?”

If at any point you feel that you have been discriminated against, file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.