Sticky Situations: How to Dodge Inappropriate Questions

Where are you from? When did you graduate from high school? Do you go to church?

You might expect to hear these common questions on a date or when making new friends. But one place you should never hear them is in your interview. These questions may seem like innocent small talk, but they are actually inappropriate (and even illegal) questions for employers to ask you during the hiring process.

Unfortunately, interviewers or hiring managers are not always HR specialists, and they may not be as well informed about employment law or what questions are off-limits. It is illegal for companies to ask questions about your age, race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, religion, arrest record, marital or family status, or disability or to use these factors when making a hiring decision.  There are some exceptions to this rule, but only when these factors are bona fide occupational qualifications, for example, certain required characteristics of an acting or modeling role.

The nuances of these kinds of questions can also complicate matters. For example, it is legal for employers to ask whether you can fulfill the duties of the job description or the work schedule. Similarly, they can ask if you are authorized to work in the United states or if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime. These subtle distinctions can be missed by less experienced interviewers and lead to some awkward moments. So what should you do if someone asks?

Whether it’s friendly chit chat or an off-putting question from an ignorant interviewer, it can be hard to negotiate if or how you should respond. Ultimately, it is your choice whether you opt to answer, but here are a few strategies that may help you navigate these questions should they arise.

  • Redirect. If someone asks you an inappropriate question, redirect your answer to instead emphasize how your qualifications meet the requirements. If for example, they ask an inappropriate question about your physical or mental health, you could say, “I am confident that I will be able to handle the requirements of the position given my experience involving…”
  • Reframe. Pull a page from the PR handbook, and answer the question you wish they had asked instead. For example, if someone asks, “Do you plan on having children?”, you can respond, “It’s really important to me to fulfill my commitments at work. Whatever the future holds, I pride myself on my ability to balance my responsibilities and to complete my work thoroughly and on time.”
  • Refuse. Unfortunately, not every illegal question is an unintentional slip of the tongue. If you encounter an interview or hiring manager that ask questions in a discriminatory manner, it is perfectly appropriate to politely refuse to answer. For example, if asked, “Were you born in the United States?”, you can say, “I prefer not to answer as this question does not impact my ability to perform this job.”

Remember throughout your interview that you are interviewing the company, too! An emphasis on illegal or discriminatory questions could signal that this organization may not align with your values or your hopes for a positive working environment.

You can get more tips for handling inappropriate questions by in the “Learn” content in Big Interview, UA’s online interview preparation and practice platform.

If you ever believe you have been discriminated against, you have the right to file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

By Mary Frances Kuper
Mary Frances Kuper