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Illegal Job Interview Questions

You finally scored an interview at your dream company. You are getting ready for the interview by perfecting your resume, completing a lengthy application, and researching the company. Once you finally get the chance to sit in front of your prospective boss, they start to ask you some questions you find inappropriate and uncomfortable to answer. They ask you about your national origin, race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, and whether you're a parent. What do you do?

These are examples of illegal job interview questions. It is against the law for employers to ask such questions of their prospective employees. This article discusses options for interviewees asked illegal job interview questions and provides additional resources and options.

Illegal Job Questions: A Brief Introduction

Employers have enormous latitude in the kinds of questions they can ask in an interview. But a series of Civil Rights Acts beginning in the 1960s made certain kinds of personal information protected, closing down lines of questions about a job candidate's race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, marital status, age, et cetera. States and municipalities have established even more protections, making it illegal to ask questions that would reveal such things as the applicant's sexual orientation, family status, or gender identity. Affirmative action reaffirms these laws and demands that businesses with government contracts and more than 50 employees have a workforce that represents the diversity of their society. So that means the process is fair, right? The best person for the job gets hired?

Dream on. While an employer can no longer discriminate against you for the color of your skin, they can if they don't like the color of your shoes. They can't choose candidates based on their religious affiliation, but it doesn't hurt if the employer knows your dad or thinks you have a winning smile. An employer can discriminate to their heart's content, as long as they don't discriminate on certain protected bases, which are off-limits.

From an employer's point of view, the interview process is about assessing an applicant's match to the position and the work culture. The hiring managers want to rule the applicant out or in as quickly as possible. Everything is in play in making their hiring decision, including attire, composure, education, and work experience. (Read: small talk isn't really small talk.) That is why employers get into trouble when they ask questions that address attributes or background information about an applicant that is protected by law during the hiring process.

Examples of such questions might include: Where are you from? Are you disabled? What is your sexual orientation? Are you a parent? Do you have childcare arrangements? What year did you graduate high school?

These questions are not indicative of job performance and have nothing to do with the job requirements. They are inappropriate questions and barred by the Civil Rights Acts, coupled with state laws.

If you are asked an illegal question, what are your options?

If you are asked an illegal question at your job interview, you may consider the following options in the moment:

  1. Let the interviewer know that the question was illegal. It can be tactfully done. You can simply inform the employer that their question was an inappropriate question. If it puts your interviewer on alert, so be it. It may be uncomfortable, but at least you can thank your lucky stars that you found out right away through these red flags that the company is still in the dark ages.
  2. Answer it. If you can honestly give the answer they are looking for, you could consider answering the question.
  3. Raise a Claim. After the interview, contact your local federal Equal Employment Opportunity office and file a claim. This office is run by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You can also sue the employer if you are denied a job because of the illegal question. You may want to lodge a formal complaint with the company's human resources department.

Distinguishing Legal vs. Illegal Questions

Some questions may be uncomfortable to answer, but that doesn't mean they are illegal. Illegal job questions must fall under specific federal and state categories. Some questions have questionable legality, depending on how they are asked. For example, your potential employer can ask about your conviction record, but it would be an inappropriate question to ask about your arrest record. Another example is if your potential employer asks if you have a bank account. This question is only appropriate if it is permitted under both the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970 and the Consumer Credit Reporting Reform Act of 1996. A final example is if your potential employer asks if you drink or do drugs, as this may be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if you are an addict in recovery. Employers cannot ask these questions in job interviews or on the job application.

Some questions may be barred by federal and state laws, while others may be allowed even if they pertain to a similar subject. For example, an employer may not be allowed to ask job seekers whether they have disabilities. However, employers can ask if the applicant is able to perform their job duties with “reasonable accommodations" by the employer. Employers can't ask if the job candidate's first language is English. But they can ask if the job candidate can read and write English fluently, if the job requires those skills.

More Resources

If you are looking for a new job and would like to learn more about protected information and illegal questions, it will be helpful to read a book on the subject. Matthew J. DeLuca's Best Answers to the 201 Most Frequently Asked Interview Questions (1996) is an excellent book and has a chapter devoted just to illegal questions.

After the interview, hiring managers might order background checks, ask to see your birth certificate, and ask for your emergency contact. However, the responsibility to not ask inappropriate questions and maintain appropriate legal boundaries in the workplace does not end at the interview.

See also:

Pursuing Legal Action

If you are interested in filing a legal claim for being denied a job after illegal questions were asked at your interview, you should consider speaking with an experienced employment law attorney.

If you feel as though your job offer was rescinded based on these illegal questions, you should definitely speak to an attorney about your claims. These attorneys can help provide you with skilled legal advice and answer any legal questions you have about your claim.

Speak to an employment law attorney and have them review your claim today.

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