5 Ways to Finesse Illegal Interview Questions

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There’s one key way an interviewer can trip you up, even if you’ve sailed through a whiteboard test and get along famously with everyone in the room: You may be asked a very personal, unexpected and inappropriate question, one that can knock you completely off course.

While inquiring about your marital status, children, or religious background may seem illegal, most of the time it’s not: The legal line gets crossed if an employer refuses to hire you because of the way you answer those questions.

The justification for prying often isn’t nefarious. Knowing a few non-work-related details can give an employer some confidence that you’ll be able to fully commit to the job, and it’s in your best interest to find a way to reassure them without giving too much away.

Bill Cole, M.S., M.A., a career counselor and author of the book, The Interview Success Guide, recommends that candidates let employers know that nothing will stand in the way of doing the job. But when HR starts becoming too crafty for their own good, you do have options: “Change the subject, dance around the issue, answer only part of the question, or ask a question of the interviewer,” Cole suggested.

Don’t Answer the Question; Answer the Intent

It’s important that you understand what’s behind the question, before addressing what makes the potential employer so uneasy. “The employer wants to know that you’ll be available to do the best job possible,” noted Susan Wise Miller, M.A., a career counselor and vocational expert at California Career Services. “That’s their main intent.”

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He or she may want to know if your kids have time-sensitive needs, or if you’re planning on having children. An interviewer might try for a little subtlety, asking a question along the lines of, “Oh, I see you’re wearing a wedding ring. How old are your kids?” In response to such questions, Miller recommended an answer that’s diplomatic while addressing the concern underlying the question: “I’m happily married and my spouse and I are very career-oriented… There’s nothing at home that would prevent me from being here.”

Such responses are a win, added Cole: “Here, you can be tactful, and keep advancing the conversation. This approach is the most artful.”


An interviewer might ask if you’ll be unavailable to work for any periods of time; that could be an attempt to gauge your religious affiliation. They might also ask that question directly. How to respond? Cole suggested: “That’s an interesting question. I’ve never been asked that in a job interview. Can you tell me why you asked it?” If that doesn’t throw them off, restate your commitment to doing the “best job possible.”

If you do have religious obligations, you may want to wait for an offer before telling your potential employer that you’ll need to be away for both QI’lop and the Kot’baval Festival.

When the interviewer pokes at your “background,” or “where you (or your family) are from originally,” e.g. your ethnicity or culture, answering the question by asking another question is often the best defense. “You may say, ‘Are you asking everybody that question?’” said Wise Miller, “Or, ‘That’s very interesting that you’re asking that question. It seems like you’re intent on having a diverse workforce.’ You can play with your responses.”

Tell the Truth

If you’re comfortable that there are no shenanigans afoot, or a question occurs naturally in the flow of conversation, just answer truthfully—although Cole advised: “You must be careful that your response doesn’t harm you, or lock you into something that they can use against you in the future.”

To that end, calm the storm before it starts. If you’re asked about your children, Wise Miller suggested saying something to the effect of: “I’m very committed to my career so my family’s childcare is well covered.”

Use It as Practice

An interview may be quite pleasant but if you determine, via the nature of the questions, that this is an organization for which you don’t want to work, don’t let your time go to waste. Instead of ending the interview, Cole counseled, “Play along and use it as practice for future interviews.”

Worst Case Scenario

If an interviewer is just being a jerk and the questions are truly off the beam, you’re in your rights to stop to it. “Inform the interviewer that you don’t believe there’s a good fit between you and the organization,” Cole said. “Or tell them you won’t answer illegal questions; in either case, leave.”

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Image: Maxim Maksutov/Shutterstock.com

9 Responses to “5 Ways to Finesse Illegal Interview Questions”

  1. Don’t forget the most obvious one–are you from ? They clearly want locals only. Answering “no” is good enough to silently reject the job candidate. It’s BS, but companies do it. Stealth discrimination at its finest.

  2. pauldfixr

    I honestly can’t imagine a time any such nonsense was asked of me by an interviewer in order to exclude me from a job. If the job is really a boiler room scenario, who wants to put up with that anyway? Finding a position is a two-party endeavor. Both you and your employer want to be thrilled with each other. Life is too short otherwise; better to go mine gold in Alaska with your friends!

  3. “While inquiring about your marital status, children, or religious background may seem illegal, most of the time it’s not”

    Um, absolutely not true. Just asking the question implies a judgement being made about a candidate based upon the answer. I don’t know where you get your legal advice, but every corporate attorney I have ever dealt with emphasized that questions like this as a huge no-no.

  4. I once was interviewing with Best Buy back in 2003. This was before they computerized their application process for online-only, and the paper application had a spot asking your age, which is illegal in California (as well as asking your date of high school graduation). I had left it blank.
    I had gone to some county interview/job search workshops and learned some things.

    I was asked my age by the interviewer, and I paused, hesitant on how to answer, and said something like that I didn’t feel comfortable answering the question due to it being an illegal question (or something along those lines). He was left guessing that I was near his age, to which I just sort of slightly smiled and acknowledged the statement.

    I wasn’t hired. I was told during the interview that he didn’t think I was fit for the job (the words/way he said it made me sort of shocked).

    I was hired soon thereafter by Circuit City.

    Now if you go through the hiring processes of most, if not all companies, it is online, and they never ask your age, but simply ask if you are either over 16 or 18 years old. In the school section you are asked if you graduated, and not what year.

    The legal departments got their act together.

  5. Look, I know we all want to get the job and have gainful employment but there are only two ways to answer prying or inappropriate questions: 1) As was said above, ask the reason for the question. 2) If you’re satisfied that the question is reasonable, move forward – if not, ask yourself “do I seriously want to be sitting here having this conversation?”.

    My time is extremely valuable and it’s as much their job to convince me that I want to work there as it is for me to prove my potential value to the company. As a contractor, I’ve interviewed many times and there have been a few rare occasions where I’ve simply stated that I’m not the right man for the job. In addition, if I’m particularly offended by their tactics, I’ve made it clear that they’ve wasted my time.

    It’s like getting bad news from a doctor. Once one of these unquestionable “gods” advised us that my mother-in-law had cancer in addition to some major blockages in her arteries. We asked that he wait to tell her until she had family around. As soon as we left, he walked into her room and gave her the bad news – alone. She had a stroke within 30 minutes. Or the time my 3 year-old daughter had to have stitches and the E-room doc got inches from her face and said, “you’re going to have to get stitches and I’m going to have to give you a shot first”. Bad form. We actually told both of these jerks that they were fired. No patient ever “fires” a doctor – and their moronic behavior facilitated a response that they’ll remember for a long time.

    It’s not simply a matter of some HR person having a bad day. This is both the worst economic and job market as well as the slowest administration in decades. You have value. You’ve taken the time to research the company, the job parameters and the terminology. You’ve taken time off from whatever you may have been doing and prepare your clothes and your mind to impress to the best of your ability. You travel, sometimes great distances to meet with these people. Then it’s all blown out of the water by some jerk who’s either having a bad day or opts to break the rules just because they feel like it? Absolutely not.

    You have to know who you are.

  6. You call this subtle? It’s nosy, ham-handed and, frankly, weird…

    ‘An interviewer might try for a little subtlety, asking a question along the lines of, “Oh, I see you’re wearing a wedding ring. How old are your kids?”’

  7. Patricia Mollen

    Hi — I had the same type of questions — I interviewed for a Receptionist/Office Clerk
    type position. I am a little older than most interviewing so the interviewer ASKED —
    WHY DO YOU NEED TO WORK @ YOUR AGE ??? I was so stunned that the the
    only reason I came up with was — PRINCE CHARMING HAS NOT COME TO SWEEP ME OFF MY FEET — needless to say I did not get the position.

  8. I have been asked these questions and other offensive questions in interviews. At one job when my religious affiliation became known (I am not a member of the “majority” religion), I was asked by my director to keep it on the down low, because the Board of Directors might not approve and request that I be replaced! I left that position voluntarily after only 8 months.

    In addition to the advise above on how to handle these questions, I would go a step further whether or not I got the job, and inform the HR department that those types of questions are being asked. If I owned the company, I would want to know because that knowledge and corrective action could save me from a lawsuit later on.