Common Interview Surprise: Inappropriate Questions

More than half of job seekers today have been asked an illegal question during a job interview.

That eye-opener comes from our online poll, in which 62% of respondents reported being on the receiving end of a question about a verboten topic, such as one’s religion or marital status. Almost a third (32%) had not been asked such a question, and 7% said they didn’t know.

The poll results suggest it’s worth reviewing what’s appropriate and not. Interviewers are not supposed to ask about:
Your age
Your race or ethnic background
Gender or sex
Marital status
Country of national origin or birthplace
Whether you have children (or plan to)
Your religion

Merely asking the questions isn’t necessarily against the law, according to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC). But the questions could become a matter for investigation if a candidate complains of unlawful discrimination during the hiring process.

Consider the Context

If you find yourself being asked a question that is inappropriate, assess the situation before reacting. Lynn Perry Parker, an employment attorney in Rockville, Maryland, suggests that you try to keep a sense of humor and not over-react, which could possibly jeopardize the employment relationship.

“Not all technically inappropriate questions are asked for improper purposes,” Parker says. “For example, questions about marital status happen all the time. In many cases the interviewer is simply trying to put the job applicant at ease by getting to know the applicant as a person and to determine whether the applicant’s personality is a good fit for the company.

“There is nothing illegal about that and, in fact, is an important objective of any interview,” she adds.

How You Can Respond

Here are few options for handling inappropriate questions:

You can answer the question. This option may work if you’re not bothered by the question and don’t suspect it was asked with an improper motive.

You can tactfully point out that the question is illegal. Your interviewer may not even know that he or she has crossed a line. But if you feel uncomfortable with the question and the context in which it was asked, you can “politely but assertively state that you don’t believe the question is relevant to your qualifications,” says Parker.

You can alert another member of the hiring team. Parker says, “A single interviewer can spoil an applicant’s chances, so it is imperative that others in the decision-making process know what may have motivated a negative report.”

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