How to Answer Discriminatory Interview Questions

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There are so many questions an interviewer might ask that it's easy to forget about the ones that they aren't allowed to ask you. Questions about your religion, ethnicity, age and even marital status are illegal and inappropriate. In spite of that, some hiring manager can forget and ask the questions anyway. When it happens, what do you do?


If you really want the job and the interview is going well, you might not want to make a big deal about it and accuse the interviewer of asking illegal questions. After all, that tends to make people defensive and they might think that you are someone who is defensive or enjoys picking a fight. Instead, it's usually better to gloss over the questions and redirect the discussion onto topics that aren't so controversial – Here's how:


Questions about marital status – If an interviewer asks if you plan to get married or start a family in the near future, you can simply re-direct the questions by saying “I'm not there yet. Right now, I'm more interested in pursuing the right job opportunity.” Of course, you didn't actually answer the question and you could very well be ready to start that family next week. If you're asked if you're married or have children, you can also try to understand the intent behind the questions. If the concern is about scheduling, for example, just say that you are able to work whatever schedule is needed.


Questions about gender – Since gender is typically obvious, these questions are more sneaky. Questions like, “How do you think you would manage in a male-dominated office” or “Will you have a problem with having a female boss?” are more likely. The best way to get past these questions is to completely ignore any portion of the question that deals with gender and instead answer with something like, “I have never had a problem with a supervisor and look forward to working with someone who can challenge me professionally.”


Questions about age – Age discrimination is a little more tricky. Because an employer can only discriminate against people who are over 40, asking questions about it to younger workers isn't illegal. However, if you're over 40 and an interviewer asks if your age will effect your work, don't get defensive. Instead, assure them that you are capable of doing the job – without discussing your age.


Questions about nationality – When it comes to your nationality, all an employer is allowed to ask is “Are you legally able to work in the U.S.?”. If they ask you where you're from, you don't need to answer. However, understand that they may not be aware of the law and they might just be trying to start a conversation rather than trying to discriminate against you. To handle this, simply say that your are legally able to work or if they ask where you are from, you can say “New Jersey” (or wherever you live).


Questions about religion – You don't have to answer questions about your religious affiliation. If you are asked if you go to church on Sunday, just answer that you are able to work whatever schedule they need, rather than deal with the question. Sometimes an inexperienced interviewer may ask the question instead of asking what they really want to know, which could be – Can you work on Sundays?


When you're asked an illegal question, it's best to gloss over it without answering rather than become defensive. Even if you don't think that your answer will hurt your job chances, don't answer these. If you do, you're only making it easier for a company to discriminate against someone else. Also, there's a good chance they they aren't aware that they are asking an illegal question.


How do you deal with these types of questions during an interview? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


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  • Melissa Kennedy
    Melissa Kennedy
    Charlotte, you're right that age is fairly easy to estimate. It's sort of like racial discrimination, in that it's fairly obvious or at least an interviewer can make assumption about what age or race someone is (even though they aren't always correct). While age discrimination is illegal, it still happens. I think the best thing an older job seeker can do to overcome the stereotypes is to show how they are energetic and up to date with technology. Include links to social networking accounts and put your Twitter or LinkedIn URL right under your name on the resume. During the interview, answer any behavioral question, (like "tell me about a time when...") with examples that also show that you are active and a leader.
  • Charlotte B
    Charlotte B
    Age discrimination is a difficult challenge for a job seeker to overcome. Most employers can easily estimate a persons age. It is not something that a job seeker is able to prove as employers would never use that as a reason for not hiring someone. Trying to make the hiring manager "think" outside of the box and consider the value that a mature worker is able to bring to the position with their experience and ideas, creativie soulutions, knowldge and most likely a high standard of work ethics and realize how important it is to be on time for work, being reliable to be there each day as they have realized in their work historoy the importance that every job needs to be done or the position  would not exist. Most mature workers are not afraid of learning new tasks but most are willing to take on the challenge of learning new ideas and possibly enhancing the new ideas with their past experience.  Getting older also means being wiser. It is not the number of years you have been on this earth but your attitude and the way you approach life is what your true age is.
  • NormanT
    I am beginning to think that age plays a bigger part in even getting an interview than I ever did before. I am 57...and I have not been able to get an interview for jobs I know I can do well...I am in excellent health and feel I can make a positive contribution to any company that I apply to. But if you do not get an how much screening is taking place that prevents people over 40 from getting an interview????
  • Betty R F
    Betty R F
    Thank you for the information on age discrimination as this is an area that affects me. As an older worker in the work force I find that I am very able to maintain my own but did not know how to explain this. Your way of response will work great.
  • Melissa Kennedy
    Melissa Kennedy
    Thanks for the great comments. @Pamela, I think the best way to answer that question is to simply say "yes". I'm overweight and healthy as well, and frankly, the question is offensive.@Rachel, you're right, not reporting the problem causes some employers to think that they can get away with it. However, being a whistleblower is tough and not everyone is willing to go through that.@Seth, that's a difficult question. When you've worked with a non-profit group and want to include the experience because it relates to the job, you have to accept the fact that the job title alone might give someone clues about you. When you work with a group like Birthright Israel, Planned Parenthood, Mormon teens or whatever, it's difficult to hide. Since you can't fight it, just be proud about it. Also, just because an interviewer bonded with someone over a shared racial background doesn't mean that they will hire them instead of a better qualified applicant. Good luck!@Joann - I think almost everyone has answered these questions, even though they knew better. Desperation makes us do things we aren't too proud of. In the end though, it doesn't matter what's the "right" answer. Just avoid them.
  • Glenice R
    Glenice R
    Very good and to the point questions and answers thatmight be asked on an interview.  It is good to know how to answer such questions without jeopardizing being considered for the job.
  • Pamela R
    Pamela R
    How about the question, "Are you healthy?"  (I am 100 lbs. overweight but completely qualified and competent to do the job)
  • Rachel T
    Rachel T
    Actually, failing to report illegal interview questions is morally wrong.  No matter how the interviewee answers the questions at the time of the interview,  the correct action is to file a complaint with the regulatory agency who has authority to punish the company for allowing their interviewer to ask illegal questions.  Until more candidates exercise all of their remedies to fair and equitable employment consideration, employers will continue to flagrantly violate the labor laws with impunity.   This milquetoast permissiveness is precisely the attitude that led to the Pinkerton Massacre, and other violent incidents in American labor history.   Harsh policing and enforcement of employment laws is the only way to avoid a labor market in which all employers feel free to flout the laws and discriminate at will - because they know that nobody will report them to the authorities if they do.
    If you are interested in applying for a job. Just be ready to answer their questions, and they just doing their job, too for asking questions, it won't hurt you anyway.
  • Lisa B
    Lisa B
    I am very curious about the age question. Every application asks what year you graduated from high school. These stupid on line applications will not let you proceed unless you fill that in. I graduated in 1975...someone looks at that and I don't get the job. They are basically asking my age without using those words. It isn't fair.
  • Rynald G
    Rynald G
    when you are dealing with clearance jobs a person is required to answer ilegal questions like Where were you born?  Are you a U.S citizen? Normal jobs they ask about year of HS graduation, and on and on.
  • Linda M
    Linda M
    Why do interviewers ask / what are your weaknesses. What does that have to do with the position that you are interviewing
  • Sheila S
    Sheila S
    What if the application wants to know the dates that you attended high school, college, etc.  Isn't that in effect asking your age?
  • Daryl L
    Daryl L
    can temporary jobs discriminate against you if you have a disability
  • Perry H
    Perry H
    Hello Melissa and thank you for this article. I had an interviewer come right out and ask me how old I was ("How old are you?"). Your section on age questions did not address this and I wish it had.Perry
  • Majid k
    Majid k
    I guess the best approach would be to turn a negative situation into a positive one, as you have suggested in your examples and move on quickly to the next question.
  • Diane B
    Diane B
    I have a problem with the age question. Being asked in person is one thing, but what about online applications that ask for your graduation year, and won't let you finish applying until you answer it? I HATE THOSE WITH A PASSION. I don't know how many interviews I might not have gotten because I graduated 30 years ago. I don't look anywhere near my age, and my interests skew younger than my age group, but without a face-to-face, how do I sell myself?
  • seth.k
    On my resume, it says that I led a Birthright Israel trip to show that I can undertake a leadership role (not to show that I affiliate as an Israeli). At career fairs, I notice that some representatives with middle eastern accents (not israeli) ask about that experience and ignore the more relevant experience preceding it. How do I handle this? It makes me feel uncomfortable since in one case the representative bonded with the person in front of me since they were both lebanese. On the one hand, I would not want to work for a company that discriminates against me, but on the other hand its probably just this representative.
  • Francesco S
    Francesco S
    Great advice, thanks
  • vincent m
    vincent m
    These are the questions normally asked by the interviewer
  • Florence S
    Florence S
    Very Informative, will be more aware next time I have a interview for questions like these.
  • Susan R
    Susan R
    I like this article.  I have a question, which is I have been asked in an interview which is when did you graduate from High School, and this gave away my age and they were no longer interested in me.  I am 60 now and have been out of work for over 4 yrs. now.  I get interviews but no job.
  • Sheila H
    Sheila H
    good article but, I have a termination due to a nursing violation and two resignations. How do I answer these questions without sabotaging the interviews    
    I would have thought marital status was a legal question; I now have to seek an other party coverage of the medical and dental costs, not to mention Life Insurance and plans for a pre-55 or pre-65 Keough plan.  I have a mental illness that has been diagnosed as Bipolar at one time, but never manic depression.  I think this growing segment in the work force population from 3-5% in the 2000 calendar year to one in 5 [or thereabout, I read] has many Personnel or Human Resources training needs and market answers.  Thus, today or tomorrow, it would seem like the tables are newly dealt.  While too old in many respects, the pale of concern on these issues, I think, leads to many fine people not being utilized to anywhere near complete capacity in our "free market" economy.  We are drifting into the pallor of the Greek and Spanish 'vision-thing' of "optimism" run aground with the high-seas-rollers.
  • Larry L
    Larry L
    The few times I was asked the questions mentioned, I responded as suggested, and was successful with both employers. However, I am convinced that most employers avoid anyone in their 60s. Many of my peers can compete with the best but are never given the chance to prove themselves. I think these potential employers forget that we are loyal and usually defy the "statistics" identifying us as liabilities. Also, many of us are looking to supplement income making all the perks secondary. I have not been able to get an interview in almost 2 years.

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