Ever had this happen? You're in an interview where things are going smoothly, where you and your prospective boss are hitting it off. And then an interview question is dropped on you so stealthily that you're stunned for a few seconds. You think to yourself, did he just really ask what I think he asked?

So, what are the no-no questions? 

According to the EEOC, questions around topics that go beyond determining job qualifications are irrelevant and out-of-bounds.

That means slipping in questions to determine things like race, age, sex, disability, national origin, religion, marital status, and gender are strictly off limits. So are explicit questions asking what holidays a job candidate celebrates or even what organizations they belong to.

The five questions you should never ask (or answer).

While these interview questions may not be "illegal" in the strictest sense of the word, they could still expose your company to potential discrimination lawsuits. Here are five interview questions employers should never ask, and employees should never have to answer.

1. "Where are you from originally?"

Even though your country of origin has no bearing on your ability to do the job, an interviewer may try to verify his or her assumptions with such a question. The legal way to ask the question is to ask whether a job candidate is legally allowed to work in the U.S. Other similar questions to avoid and not answer:

  • "Are you a U.S. citizen?"
  • "Where did you live while you were growing up?"

2. "Do you go to church?"

This and similar questions like "What holidays do you celebrate?" and "What is your religious affiliation?" are used as sneaky inquiries into your religion or how and where you worship. And that is a big no-no. Unless you are applying for a job at a church or faith-based organization, which may make hiring decisions based on religion, you shouldn't have to answer these questions.

3. "When did you graduate from high school (or college)?"

Most interviewers are aware they should avoid asking questions related to age, since it opens them up to age discrimination. Nonetheless, it's still common to hear questions that will give them a clue about a candidate's birth date. Other questions to never ask or answer: 

  • "Is the age difference between you and your prospective co-workers a problem?" 
  • "How long do you plan to work until you retire?"

4. "Are you married?"

While an interviewer may seem like he is pleasantly making casual conversation while the interview is going well, fishing for information about a candidate's family plans (marriage, engagement, and child planning) is illegal and discriminatory. This could also be a subtle way to find out about someone's sexual orientation--another protected class--and job candidates are not obligated to disclose personal information. Similar questions to avoid:

  • "What arrangements are you able to make for child care while you work?"
  • "How old are your children?"
  • "What does your wife do for a living?"

5. "How would you handle managing a team of all men?"

Discriminatory questions about gender are common, yet nothing related to gender should be asked in the interview process. If an interviewer has concerns about a candidate's
ability to perform the job responsibilities, he or she needs to ask the candidate directly about those job duties. For example, "This job requires that you travel 30 percent of the time. Are there any restrictions that would prevent you from doing that?" Other similar questions to avoid include:

  • "What kind of child care arrangements do you have in place?"
  • "What are your plans if you get pregnant?"

Guidelines for handling illegal interview questions:

In an intriguing article published two days ago, The Washington Post offered up five sound strategies for candidates faced with encountering illegal interview question. So, if any of the above questions discussed are asked, try any of these options:

  • Answer the question: For some job candidates, answering inappropriate questions may, in fact, increase their chances of getting the job. The Post article references research
    where recruiters favor applicants that share their religion

  • Redirect the question: Job candidates are advised to keep the focus on how their skills and experience will make them the best choice for the job, without any reference to gender.

  • Ask for clarification: Ask the interviewer to clarify how the question relates to the job. Perhaps it was an honest mistake on the interviewer's part, and this may alert him or her to the unintended bias in the question.

  • Decline to answer: Questions like "Do you have children?" or "Where were your parents born?" are simply uncalled for and should not be answered. The Post article suggests a comeback like, "This does not affect my ability to perform the job."

  • Report it. Contact your local EEOC office to schedule an interview and to file a complaint. "Whether or not you seek legal advice beyond filing a charge is up to you and will depend on the circumstances you faced," states The Post article.

Published on: Jul 25, 2018
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