“What a lovely engagement ring. Are you planning to start a family soon?” an interviewer asks you while making pre-interview small talk. Seems innocent enough. But it’s actually illegal.
Illegal questions get asked for one of three reasons: (1) Lack of knowledge that the question is illegal; (2) A valid, underlying concern that the interviewer is trying to get at but doesn’t know how to frame legally; (3) A knowing attempt to obtain information the employer is not legally entitled to.
As an executive recruiter specializing in human resources, I can assure you it’s usually one of the first two reasons, so give the interviewer the benefit of the doubt and be diplomatic. Although these blunders are less common with human resource professionals (it’s their job to know better!) than in other fields, I always make sure the candidates I work with understand what they can and cannot be legally asked as well as how to navigate these questions in a non-confrontational fashion should they arise.
Here are five illegal interview questions that are commonly asked:
#1 Do you have children? Do you plan to have children? Who cares for your children when you are at work?
Whether you have children or plan to have children is off limits. Generally, what an employer wants to know is whether or not your home life will interfere with the job. The best tactic here is to turn the question around and ask if there are requirements that the employer wants to know if you’re available for. Legal questions to ask in an interview are whether you are available to travel, work overtime, relocate etc. as long as those questions relate directly to the job requirements.
#2 When did you graduate?
Asking about when you graduated is not allowed because it could lead to age discrimination. Younger candidates don’t tend to think about this question as they generally include a graduation year on their resumes. However, older candidates, especially those over the age of 60, tend to leave their graduation year out by design. What you CAN be asked is questions with direct relevance to the position, like how many years of experience you have in the industry, so steer the conversation in that direction.
#3 Are you married?
Your marital status and, by extension, your sexual orientation are unethical interview questions. The reasons behind this question can be ambiguous. Maybe the interviewer is making small talk. Maybe he or she wants to know if you’ll be willing to entertain clients at night. Use your best judgment. It’s ok to ask the interviewer to clarify how a question is related to the job.
#4 Where were you born? Are you a U.S. citizen?
Many candidates aren’t aware that interviewers cannot legally ask about your nationality although I see it happen a lot, especially in the technology space. What IS legal is for the interviewer to ask whether you are legally authorized to work in the US. You can volunteer additional information in response to the question.
#5 Is English your first language?
You can’t be asked if English is your first language, but you can be asked what languages you read, speak or write fluently if it’s relevant to job performance. You can confirm your fluency in any languages related to the position without addressing which is your first language.
Although the law is black and white, how you deal with illegal questions isn’t. Ultimately, you have to consider the intent behind the question and what the impact of responding versus not responding will be on your candidacy.
If you ever feel that an interviewer has been truly discriminatory, file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Have you ever been asked an illegal interview question? How did you handle it? Share your experiences in the comments below.