Illegal Interview Questions: Fend Them Off And Don't Lose The Job
Is it legal for employers to ask job applicants for their Facebook password? While that question has sparked debate, it also underscores a vital issue facing job applicants: What exactly is an illegal interview question?
And, more importantly, how should you respond when thrown an off-limits query?
Only two subjects are completely out of bounds during interviews, says Justine Lisser, a senior attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Interviewers are legally prohibited from asking the job seeker about their personal history in these areas:
- genetic and family medical-related history
Most other areas are less clear-cut. For instance, interviewers are welcome to ask you about your conviction record as well as your eligibility to work in the United States -- but they can't ask your arrest record or your citizenship status. Other examples:
- Employers can't ask about your living arrangements, but the company can ask about how to contact you.
- Employers can't ask you about physical disabilities, but they can ask about your ability to lift heavy objects on the job.
The general rule of thumb, says Lisser, is "whether the interviewer's question is relevant with business necessity. Can they defend the question as part of their needs?"
Lisser also advised job-seekers to be cautious about questions on race, religion and other personal affiliations, as they will likely have nothing to do with business needs.
Handling Illegal Questions: A Tricky Dance
But even if a question crosses the line, should you really tell the interviewer that? Not if you want the job, experts say.
"The bottom line is not whether the question is illegal but the job seekers' choice on how to handle situation," says career coach Miriam Salpeter. "The goal is to make it a positive choice, other than saying, 'That's an illegal question.' That's not good unless you want to burn a bridge."
In addition, sometimes the interviewer has no bad intent. A question like "how many kids do you have?" may not have nefarious motives -- but instead could be just an innocent attempt to make conversation and get to know you. So don't try and hide a big batch, but be honest, and talk about how you've juggled work and family in the past. "Outside of the interviewers at big companies, most of the time the interviewers don't have formal training," said J.T. O'Donnell, the CEO of careerhmo.com. "So step back, as this could be a simple case of ignorance."
But what if you think the interviewer is asking illegal questions to get personal info from you, which you don't want to share? Some strategies on how to respond:
1. Reframe the question. For example, if you're asked about how often you go to church, you can respond, "If you're asking if I can work certain days, I'm available ..."
2. Respond with a question. If the interviewer asks you about drinking and social habits, then you could ask if that was an issue in the company before. Ask the interviewer to share that experience and then address those concerns.
3. Raise the legality issue. If you really don't want to answer a question you think is illegal, say you are happy to discuss the subject, but then pose a non-aggressive question noting the legality. For instance, if you're asked about your arrest record, you can say what you learned from a certain experience, but then ask them if they know that technically that was an illegal question.
4. Use positive body language. If you cross your arms or look down, you're signalling defensiveness. Make sure to sit upright, lean in when speaking, and soften your tone. And smile.
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Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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