Most experienced human resources professionals and hiring managers are well versed on the topics they can safely broach in an employment interview. Unfortunately, not all interviewers are as informed as they should be.
If a prospective employer asks about your marital status or religious affiliation, for instance, the person is stepping out of bounds. Federal, state and municipal laws prohibit certain types of pre-employment questions. Inquiries that focus on age, birthplace, disability, marital status, national origin, religion, sex and sexual orientation are generally off-limits.
But just because a question should not be asked doesn’t mean you won’t hear it during the course of your job hunt. Following are some strategies for tactfully handling inappropriate or unlawful interview questions.
Arm Yourself With Knowledge
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers details on its website to help you identify questions that are acceptable, borderline and completely off-limits.
For example, most employers cannot ask if you are a U.S. citizen but can inquire about your right to remain and work in the United States.
If you are asked a question that has no direct relevance to the job requirements, seek safer ground by striving to address the interviewer’s underlying concern. Put simply, answer the question behind the question.
If the hiring manager asks if you have children or any elderly relatives, he or she may really be wondering about your ability to devote the necessary time to the job. You might respond by saying, “I enjoy spending time with my family, and I am also completely committed to my work. As you will learn from my references, nobody has ever questioned my performance or dedication.”
Politely Assert Yourself
Instead of trying to steer the conversation back to more germane topics, some job seekers prefer to be upfront and direct when faced with an inappropriate interview question. If you fall into this group, your best bet is to remain affable yet firm.
Consider a statement such as, “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer to focus on the skills and qualifications that make me the best person for this job rather than my personal life.” As long as you are tactful in your delivery, most interviewers will realize their error and quickly move on to a new subject.
Don’t Automatically Assume the Worst
Everyone makes honest mistakes. In an attempt to establish rapport and find common ground, especially when trying to break the ice, an interviewer may unintentionally ask an inappropriate question.
For instance, though illegal, an interviewer might innocently say, “You have an interesting accent. Where are you from?” In these types of situations, you may want to give the hiring manager the benefit of the doubt if the transgression seems innocuous and happens only once. That said, you should still deflect the irrelevant question or carefully decline to answer.
Know When to Walk Away
Asking a single gray-area question is one thing; a constant bombardment of blatantly illegal or wildly out-of-line queries is another. It’s OK to cut the interview short if discriminatory red flags continue to fly. After all, if a hiring manager is rude and disrespectful during an introductory interview, it’s safe to assume you’d receive similarly poor — or worse — treatment after being hired.
Deftly dodging an inappropriate or illegal query isn’t always easy. When you are interviewing for a position you really want, you may be tempted to answer a questionable question so that you don’t offend the interviewer. But you should not feel compelled to provide a response to a query about your age, race, marital or family status, or other protected categories.
You are not required to answer such question and, in fact, doing so can put both you and the employer at risk. It’s best to stand your ground — as politely as possible, of course.