Illegal and Inappropriate Interview Questions

Every human resources specialist in America knows that interview questions about sex, religion, and race are against the rules. But other interviewers who don't deal with employment issues on a regular basis sometimes cross the line and ask personal, intrusive, discriminatory questions. In general, employers shouldn't ask about any of the following topics:

  • Age
  • Birthplace
  • Disability
  • Marital/family status
  • National origin
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sex

Should you set off sirens if an interviewer has the audacity to toss you a possibly discriminatory question that shouldn't be asked? Should you flame the transgressor with passive-aggressive answers like the following:

How is my marital status a factor in the selection process for this job?

As you know, under Title VII, basing employment decisions on sex is illegal, and I feel that this question is discriminatory in nature.

Think twice about verbally punching out an interviewer — especially if job talk is going well otherwise and you're thinking that this could be the right place for you.

In large companies where interviewers should know better but don't, interviewers may go on fishing expeditions, hoping that weird, unexpected questions catch candidates without prepared answers, causing them to make unintended revelations.

In companies where interviewers do know better, some go ahead and ask risky questions because they want the information and are willing to gamble that they won't be challenged.

Defining inappropriate questions

Let's talk terms. An inappropriate question is one the interviewer can legally ask, but probably shouldn't. Depending on whether the information is used to discriminate, inappropriate questions set up employers for lawsuits. Inappropriate questions range from civil rights and privacy issues to hard-to-classify bizarre inquiries:

Is your girlfriend white?

How would you go about making a pizza?

If you were at a departmental meeting and a coworker put his hand on your thigh, what would you do?

Illegal questions are always inappropriate, but inappropriate questions are not always illegal.

Defining illegal questions

An illegal question is one that the interviewer has no legal right to ask. Most states and large cities have laws restraining employers from going hog-wild with intrusive questions covering civil rights. Asking illegal questions can get the interviewer in big trouble.

To find out what's what in your locale, get the facts. You can inquire at your state or city attorney general's office. A library may have a list of questions that shouldn't be asked, according to state or local laws.

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