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What to Do If You’re Asked Illegal Questions During an Interview

What to say, how to report it, and what to consider if you get an offer

What to Do If You’re Asked Illegal Questions During an Interview

This article is part of InHerSight's Finding a Job series. Discover our most popular and relevant resources for finding a job fast—at a company that cares as much about your career as you do.

Interviews are already sweat-inducing, stressful, and mentally draining—What are your best qualities? Why do you want this job? Where do you see yourself in five years?—but what happens when you’re asked uncomfortable, unexpected, illegal questions?

You’re expected to make a lasting, impactful first impression while bringing your best self forth so chances are you’re not prepared for questions like, How many kids do you have? Are you expecting? Are you planning to get married?

Yet, according to InHerSight research, 25 percent of women have been asked if they have children and more than 25 percent of women have been asked if they are married. Both of those questions are illegal, as are the following:

  • When did you graduate high school?

  • Do you own a home or rent?

  • Are you a citizen?

  • Do you have a disability?

  • What is your gender identity?

  • Are you single or married?

  • Do you have children or do you plan to?

  • Where are you from originally?

  • What is your maiden name?

Other illegal questions include those relating to race, sexual orientation, citizen status, and age.

What happens when you’re asked an illegal question?

Let’s hope you’re not asked an illegal question during an interview, but statistically, you might be. If it happens, consider the best ways to handle it. First, decide if you want to answer it or not. Since it is illegal, you are not required to answer the question, but you can.

Allison Muer, talent acquisition manager at PricewaterhouseCooper, says, “The interviewee should politely steer the conversation away from the inappropriate topic and talk to the recruiting manager after the interview about their discomfort with the question asked.”

Here are a few ways to respond if you’re asked an illegal question:

Refuse to answer

Although you could say, very forwardly, This is an illegal question, that will likely make the interview even more uncomfortable and may hinder your chances at getting an offer (assuming you still want the job, which might be up for debate considering they asked illegal questions). Some of the best response options include:

I’d prefer not to answer this.

I don’t believe this will impact my ability to excel in this position.

Ask a question in response

Rather than answering, you can ask for clarification or say something as simple as:

How does this question relate to the role?

Do you have a question relating to my prior experience?

Redirect the conversation

Rather than answering or refusing to answer, you can simply change the subject.

I’m a big fan of the company’s mission, and I believe I would be a great addition to the team.

Having worked in this industry for more than 10 years, I know that I can handle any challenge that comes my way.

Shift the conversation back to your experiences, qualifications, or the role itself. This is a great way to get the interview back on track.

Report the question

Illegal questions make for a difficult interview. You may be tempted to cut the interview short, but do your best to get through it. When it’s over, you can follow up, as if the illegal question never happened, or you can choose to report it. You have some options:

  • Make an informal complaint. Call, email, or ask to speak with someone from the HR department and address the issue.

  • Make a formal complaint. You can contact your local U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office and report the incident. If you choose to file through the state, do so as quickly as possible. You can hire a lawyer, but it is expensive and not always necessary.

Know that if you file a formal complaint, you could disrupt your chances of getting a position with that company in the future. That shouldn’t have to be a consideration, but unfortunately, it is. How you move forward depends on the individual situation and your comfort level with that reality.

What if they ask illegal questions—and you get the offer?

Maybe you don’t report the questions and you get a formal job offer. Should your really work for a company that asks illegal questions? Life isn’t always black and white, and this decision lies in the gray area. Maybe the interviewer saw the “baby on board” sticker on your car, or maybe they weren’t properly trained in how to interview and how to avoid certain questions.

The best thing you can do is follow up. Speak to an HR representative, ask about the interviewer and the company’s culture, and figure out what sort of environment you’d be working in. If the interviewer isn’t who you’d report to, ask to meet for coffee with your could-be boss. The more informed you are, the more clearly you can make a decision as to whether this was an accidental incident or a common one. If the latter… you might consider another company.

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