7 Interview Questions You Don’t Have to Answer

Employers rarely come right out and ask your age or ethnicity during a job interview. Nonetheless, some interviewers ask more subtle, seemingly innocent questions that may violate anti-discrimination laws or your privacy rights.

While refusing to answer the questions listed below is certainly within your rights, sometimes the best option is to clarify the interviewer’s intent or to stick with information about your qualifications and skills. 

 

1. “Your last name sounds familiar. Does your spouse work for Google?”

Employers aren’t allowed to base hiring decisions on an applicant’s marital status. So even if the interviewer is simply trying to build rapport, he shouldn’t ask for the name of your spouse or what he or she does for a living.

How to Respond: If you think the interviewer is fishing for your marital status, you could ask about the relevance of the question, or indicate that you are uncomfortable with personal questions. Mention that you’re more than willing to discuss your professional qualifications, instead.

 

2. “Our ‘egg freezing’ benefit is quite popular with our staffers. Do you have children, or have you been thinking about starting a family?”

Whatever your gender, it’s inappropriate for employers to ask about children, future family plans or childcare arrangements, according to Benjamin King, an employment discrimination attorney and partner with Douglas, Leonard & Garvey. The information could violate Title VII if it is used to deny employment opportunities, he explained.

“It falls under a new species of liability that covers sex or gender stereotyping,” King noted.

How to Respond: Since the interviewer may be worried that you won’t be able to balance workplace and family demands, talk about how committed you are to your career, or how you don’t have an issue with the schedule or hours. Alternatively, flip the script by mentioning that you have researched the company and were impressed with its reputation and progressive benefits package. Deflecting to another topic is a great way to handle intrusive, borderline questions.

 

3. “Like most startups, we’re on a tight budget. What was your previous salary?”

While experts have written volumes about how to dodge the salary question, you don’t have to answer if you’re interviewing in a city or state where the practice is banned, explained Jennine Leale, owner of HRPro Consulting Services LLC.

How to Respond: Employers are allowed to ask about your expectations, Leale explained. In light of that, simply state that you expect to receive market-based pay.

 

4. “I see that you have experience with COBOL and Fortran. How much longer do you plan to work?”

Employers aren’t allowed to ask questions that probe for age or imply that you might be over the hill. But it’s a slippery slope, because an interviewer can ask about your ability to work long hours, learn new programs, or fit into a high-energy culture. Plus, age discrimination is one of the most difficult types of cases to prosecute, according to King.

How to Respond: If you feel like your age is working against you, talk about the effort you’ve put into your previous jobs, and how you’ve managed to exchange knowledge and establish rapport with junior teammates.

 

5. “You’ll need a security clearance. Have you ever been arrested or spent time in jail?”

Generally speaking, employers are allowed to ask about an applicant’s criminal history. However, some localities have ”banned the box,” or only allow employers to consider job-related convictions. Many state laws provide some protections for applicants with a criminal past.

How to Respond: If you’ve gotten into a few scrapes with the law, know your rights. If accurate, state that you haven’t been convicted of a felony within the last seven years. (By the way, now that possession and recreational or medical use of marijuana is legal in some areas, many employers are rethinking their pre-hire drug testing and conviction policies, so stay tuned.)

 

6. “I see that you received your technical training in the military. Have you been treated for PTSD?”

Employers are not allowed to ask about your current or past health conditions, how many sick days you took at your last job, or whether you smoke or drink. However, they can ask about your ability to perform basic job duties.

How to Respond: Simply state that you are able to perform the essential functions of the job, and that you can meet the company’s attendance or non-smoking policy.

 

7. “You’ll need to communicate with external clients. Are you a native English speaker?

Employers can’t ask about your national origin or whether English is your primary language. But they can evaluate your communication skills and refuse to hire you due to a lack of fluency (although an employer must show a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason why they turned you down).

How to Respond: Your best bet is to ignore the “illegal” part of the question, and instead offer examples of situations where you have successfully communicated with external stakeholders.

 

Final Tip

While many employment laws are federal, some vary by state and city. Therefore, you should always consult an attorney or file a charge with the EEOC if you feel you’ve been discriminated against.

23 Responses to “7 Interview Questions You Don’t Have to Answer”

  1. Some of the response examples that you gave on each one of the seven points,have the potential to knock you out of consideration.

    My concern is that these discrimination questions are all too common. So how do fight it? You can’t file complaints about every candidate employer. I see it a lot and one of the reasons I chose to be an independent consultant.

    Companies may not be able to get away with everything, but there is no doubt they are in the drivers seat the vast majority of the time during the hiring process. Also, acquiring legal counsel is very expensive!

    My point is that it’s way to tough for people seeking employment because the deck is stacked too much against candidates!!

    • Most employers will ask you for your current salary, especially if you apply online.

      As for age discrimination, they don’t have to ask you, they just have to look at you to know that you’re older. Leaving out graduation dates is a giveaway that you’re older.. Ditto with not being a native speaker, as soon as you open your mouth they will know. If you’re worried that they don’t want to hire married people, leave the wedding band at home

  2. The author is from California and educated in California… I’ll take that with a grain of salt. In a competitive career market she’s teaching people how to get disqualified.

      • From the GAGA land of 40 million people where I live to the real world of 7 million folk, I question your claim about where the ‘real’ world is. But, I very much agree that this post is a little naive (like most articles on this topic.) The truth is that the employer as a rule holds all the cards and if you want the job you have play by their rules, regardless of what the law says – except the most blatant situations.

  3. Scott Smith

    Your assessment of the “You will need a security clearance” is incorrect. For sensitive positions within the Federal government they are absolutely allowed and do legally probe as to your security clearance eligibility prior to submitting the SF-86 to OPM to initiate a lengthy and costly (6 months to 2 year) Federal Clearance investigation. Local and state laws regarding “ban the box” to not apply to federal hiring.

    • Martin Smuthe

      That’s absolutely correct about decurity clearances and I agree about the deck being stacked against you. The answers would never pass scrutiny in any company I’ve worked for. California is the antithesis of most of the country do I agree take with a grain of salt.

    • Mark Orlicky

      Many companies require the security clearance as a prerequisite. Security clearances require a background investigation and they’re expensive. The HR people don’t need to ask this question.

    • I’m so glad I filled out that security form to renew my clearance. The Chinese now know everything about me. The Feds were nice enough to provide me, and the tens of thousands similarly compromised, with a monitoring service. My clearance was allowed to lapse (writing on the wall?) so now this old guy is retired. I don’t have to put up with silly interviews or questions.

  4. Alfred Friend

    Where to start with this article. Is it the responses or the actual questions? In my experience, many decades worth, I have never been asked these questions with one exception. On the spouse issue, I was asked if working long hours would hurt me in a personal sense. This job required very long hours for the first 3-4 months and they were concerned I would end up in a bad personal position if my mate was mad about the hours. Other than that, you don’t want to ever work for this person or any of her acquaintances. That’s a train wreck in action.

  5. Unfortunately all these questions are already being asked by any of the electronic systems used to apply for the job. Most won’t allow to you to submit until the questions are answered.

  6. Bottom line…. Relax. If you want the job, you will need to answer most of the questions being posed to you. A major key to hiring success is preparing yourself to receive such a question and how to best respond. If the company you have applied to is small (less than 50 people), you should anticipate the people interviewing you may not be the most professional as they usually will need to wear more than one hat in a small company.

    If you don’t want the job, politely inform the interviewer they are asking questions that violate your privacy and local labor laws. After that you can request somebody else join the interview and eventually make a complaint to their superiors and/or the EEO. If that happens, forget any chance of getting hired. In the long-term, you are probably better off anyway! It will still be worthwhile to do so when you consider your actions will help others after you and will raise the hiring practices to be fairer and more legitimate.

    In a group interview, I needed to intervene when the candidate I wanted was asked questions about her marital status and children. I has to interrupt the President & CEO of my company from asking the question and requested the applicant not to respond. The outcome? My President & CEO consulted with me on all future hires and had me along on any interviews he was attending as long as I was available. Also, we hired my candidate! She is still there long after I moved on myself.

  7. Yes you DO need to be careful about the author, especially if they’re from California, which has been taken over by ignorant liberal snowflakes. Do your OWN research and don’t rely on what ANYONE tells you. Because ANYONE can be misinformed and biased…

    • Wow. Just… wow.

      The laws are different in CA and it’s unfortunate that the article’s author didn’t take that into account. Also. it’d be nice if you noticed that this isn’t Facebook—a place where calling people “snowflakes” it considered more acceptable.

      • California responses should be viewed with a rational mind not a liberal mindset. It’s self feeding. The suggestion that you can’t ask someone if English is laughable but in the next 25 years when Californians vote to succeed from the USA and join Mexico we can completely tune them out……….I was born in Laguna Beach and I am happy to be living 3000 miles from California.

  8. It strikes me that these questions fall into three categories:

    1) Legitimate concern about the candidate’s match to the job.
    2) Insulting pig ignorance.
    3) Relatively innocent questions that may be ice-breakers or unwarranted snooping.

    Cat 1: 3,4,5,7
    Cat 2: 6
    Cat 1: 1,2

  9. Answers which are obvious evasions, like several suggestions, won’t get you the job. If someone asks if your wife works for Google, you can just smile (to show that you consider it an attempt at small talk) and say “ABC is a common name” or “I don’t have any relatives who work at Google.” And then look for a chance to put to rest any underlying fear (commitment to the job?) As well as any concerns it raises for you. (If you have small children and strong job prospects, do you want to work for a place that doesn’t want married people?)

  10. Ezra O'Brien

    Sounds like advice for some kind of contest between the worker class and the management class. You can look at life that way, but it’s usually not the best approach. I am who I am and I come to the hiring process with nothing to hide and nothing to fear. If an employer wants to build an efficiently running business operation, there needs to be a sense of all of us being in it together. If an employer is insensitive to that, and will use the interview opportunity to find things to hold against you, I bet you don’t really want to work there anyhow. I wouldn’t. So don’t be afraid to be yourself. If you get hired based on disguised attributes, then you will never be comfortable there; you’ll always be watching your back. And that is no way to live.

  11. Never been asked these (but 1), but I am a white man. I completely agree any company that asks these questions should be avoided in most circumstances. If you’re in a very limited job market then maybe you have to weather these, but they are certainly red flags.
    I was asked to substantiate salary in one situation because I insisted they exceed my current salary without contacting my current employer and that seemed fair.

  12. This all sounds like good advice, but I would beware. Companies may not be allowed in some places to ask certain questions, but they are also not required to hire you. It is also not certain why the questions are being asked. Taking an adversarial or evasive approach during the interview is a poor tactic. Frankly, I don’t mind if I am asked about my earnings. I certainly am not shy about asking how much a position pays. My usual tactic for the salary question is to be honest about what I am making, but also to remind the interviewer that I am seeking to leave my present employer, and that salary is part of the reason I am leaving. As far as the rest – if a company culture is looking to exclude certain people, and you seek to circumvent this process, you may find yourself very unhappy once you start work. A company that doesn’t like you can make your life miserable, and will eventually find a way to get you out.