Not every question asked in an interview is allowed to be asked. Learn how to identify an illegal interview question and a response that works best for you!
Today I applied for a senior manager position at a local university where I live. The process was familiar, using an online applicant portal to collect information. I’ve grown accustomed to filling out the forms without thinking about the questions, since the position required both a resume and cover letter.
So I was shocked when I got to a question that made me pause.
You see, the application required an answer to the question whether I had been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony.
Why did it make me pause?
Because in the state where I live, this question is illegal to ask during this stage of the application process. Since this question requires a yes/no answer, managers can sort by this answer and not allow candidates to advance in their search based on their qualifications.
Rather they are excluded based on their identity. In the state where I live, past convictions can only be asked when a candidate can address these issues and share whatever information they want regarding their past.
Not all interview questions are created equally. Some interview questions are just plain bad. But this is a little bit different.
It made me wonder, who should I or anyone respond when confronted by an illegal question during the interview process – either the application or in-person interview. I’ll review some of the tips offered by experts in the field, so you can decide what feels best for you.
Why Employers Ask Illegal Questions (and Why You Shouldn’t Answer Them)
Assuming positive intent, some people who interview candidates simply want to make conversation. They want to know about the gorgeous wedding ring you’re wearing. Or maybe they see pictures of children on the screen of your phone. And know someone who graduated from one of the schools listed on your resume and ask if you know the person.
Or they want to know how recent you got married. And if you have school-aged children. And the person they know from your school is around the age they perceive you to be.
We refer to the person who is asking these illegal questions as the ‘friendly interviewer.’ And they are using a rapport-building technique that drops the guard of the person being interviewed. It’s a slick technique and allows the interviewer to learn protected information.
Examples of ‘friendly interviewer’ questions:
- My children get bored during school vacations. Do yours?
- On the weekends, I try to relax after going to church, so I can be ready to work on Mondays. Do you also find ways to relax after going to church?
- That’s a lovely engagement ring you are wearing! Do you have a date set for the wedding?
- One of the perks of the company is a big holiday party where people bring their spouses. Do you have one, so we know how big a space we need to reserve this year?
- Your accent is so distinct! Where is your accent from?
Responding to Illegal Interview Questions
Regardless of what questions are asked, you should have an idea of how you plan to respond when asked an illegal question. When I lead my job readiness class at a nonprofit workforce development organization, I would prep my participants to consider the question being asked and follow their instincts. As shared above, some interviewers are just prepped poorly and may ask the wrong question to get information they want.
Below are responses to illegal questions that you can adapt into your own words:
The Innocent Ask
Rachel Pelta, from FlexJobs, reminds us that the answers to these questions “are protected characteristics under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If a company is asking for any of this information, it could be perceived that the answers are playing a part in the hiring decisions.” So even when asked politely, they can be perceived to have a bias against the candidate.
Pelta shares that “sometimes an interviewer doesn’t realize they’re asking an illegal question. Sometimes, there is something legitimate the interviewer is trying to find out—they are just asking it in a really wrong way. So, when a question that strikes you as illegal pops up, don’t assume your interviewer is breaking the law.
Response: Reframe the Question
If you can reframe the question to get at the root of their potential concern, then address that reframed question, you can answer the question with grace and good information.
Deflect the Question
If you feel like a question is starting to ask about protected identity characteristics, you can acknowledge the question but deflect the answer. In other words, you can answer neutrally and return to talking about your skills.
Perhaps the interviewer brings up gender into a question, maybe asking if you would be comfortable leading a team of people from a different gender. Angela Smith, with the Muse, shares, “If it comes up, the best approach is to answer the question, but without referencing gender. For example, if you’re asked, “How would you handle managing a team of all men?”, drop the last part of the question and focus on your leadership skills, instead. Try: “I’m very comfortable in a management role. In fact, in my last position, the department I led exceeded its annual sales goals for three years straight.”
Response: Remain Neutral
Perhaps the interviewer drops information about their kids and needing to find activities during the school breaks, asking what you plan with your kids during the school breaks. One way to remain neutral is to keep the conversation on their kids. Or ask questions about the leave policy. If the interviewer continues to
The No Zone
Perhaps the question asked is too personal to answer. Or the information being asked raises a red flag or perks your intuition. Whatever the reason, your first response to follow your instincts could serve you well.
Alison Doyle, with The Balance Careers, shares “If you are asked an illegal interview question or the questions begin to follow an illegal trend, you always have the option to end the interview or refuse to answer the question. It may be uncomfortable to do, but you need to be comfortable working at the company. If the questions you are being asked during the interview are indicative of the company’s policies, you may be better off finding out now.”
Response: Thank you, but I am not comfortable answering that question
When you’re asked a question that you believe is illegal and its answer could bias the interviewer against you, you can simply say “I prefer not to discuss personal matters.” And then you have the choice to continue the conversation or to end the interview.
How to Bring It Up to the Employer
The situation that initially prompted this post – being asked about a prior conviction – doesn’t quite fit into the friendly interviewer model. This is because asking about convictions varies from state to state and is not an EEOC protected identity. But it is protected by state law and probably merits some type of response.
In the past, when I have had issues with an employment application, I have sent a separate email to the HR contact on the website. I would bring up the question and how it violated EEOC or state statutes. While this could have impacted my candidacy, I recognize how these actions could help others down the road. And that is enough to drive me to action.
In this same application, I asked to state how I have contributed to diversity, equity, and inclusion actions before applying for the job.
I wish I had brought up identifying this question on their own application.
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