What If You’re Asked Illegal Questions During An Interview?

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One of the most important things job candidates can do for their job search is prepare for interviews. Going through a list of the most asked questions can help job seekers formulate answers according to their strengths and skills. But what happens when an interviewer takes the questioning to a more personal place that makes job candidates feel uncomfortable?

Martin Yate, author of the book, Knock ‘em Dead, suggests remaining polite, being straightforward, and moving the conversation in a more appropriate direction by redirecting back to how you can do the job you’re interviewing for.

Yate also lists some key discriminatory items an interviewer may or may not ask about, which may sound illegal but the way it’s asked will leave the question fair game:

  1. Your religion, church, synagogue, parish, the religious holidays you observe, or your political beliefs/affiliations. But, the interviewer may ask if you are available to work on weekends.
  2. Your ancestry, national origin, parentage, birthplace, or the naturalization status of your parents, spouse, or children. Yet, an interviewer may ask whether you are a U.S. citizen or a resident alien with the ability to work in the United States.
  3. Your native language, the language you speak at home, or how you acquired the ability to read, write, or speak a foreign language. But, it is appropriate for the interviewer to ask about the languages in which you are fluent if it is pertinent to the job.
  4. Your age, your date of birth, whether you are married or pregnant, or the ages of your children. However, he or she may ask if you are over 18.
  5. Your maiden name, your marital status, number of children or dependents, your spouse’s occupation, or how you wish to be addressed (i.e. “Miss,” “Mrs.,” or “Ms.”). Yet, the interviewer may ask whether or not you have worked for the company before under a different name.

In addition to the above mentioned areas, I would add questions related to physical disabilities, health, medical history, and criminal records to the list of items that should not be addressed by interviewers. Although these topics are off limits, this does not mean that employers do not utilize indirect methods to ask about these areas.

While the employer may not ask you directly, “Does your religion allow you to work on Saturdays and/or Sundays?” He or she may state, “This job requires work on Saturdays and/or Sundays. Is that a problem?”  In this instance, the employer’s question is acceptable, but what is an appropriate response?

Yate provides a few suggestions:

First, if you do not actively practice a religion, you could say, “I have a set of personal beliefs that are important to me, but I do not attend any organized services. And I do not mix such beliefs with my work, if that’s what you mean.” On the flipside, an applicant might state, “I attend my church/synagogue/mosque regularly, but I am intentional about not making it my practice to involve my personal beliefs at my job. My career and work for the company are far too important for that.”

In the end, as you are pondering the legality of questions, keep in mind, not all interviewers will be asking them intentionally. Some may not be aware of the laws on the matter; however, this does not justify their behavior. As a result, Yate suggests that you should be polite and straightforward, while attempting to move the conversation to discuss your skills and abilities, rather than focusing on your status. In the end, you can always decide that a company is not for you, leaving no obligation to accept the position.

Yates, M. (2010). Knock ‘em dead: The ultimate job search guide. Avon, MA: Adams Media.

For this post, Doostang thanks our friends at OnlineCareerTips.

About the Author: Kristen Carter is a career services contributor for OnlineCareerTips.com. OnlineCareerTips provides advice and resources for advancing your career or successfully transitioning to a new one. Explore OnlineCareerTips for great resources including salary wizard, resumè tips, career focused webcasts, podcasts, and office survival tips.


  1. Henry Payne says

    Hello, I have been actively seeking employment for several months now and have been floored by questions I’m expected to answer in the initial applications online. Many employers directly ask me what year I graduated from high school, inquire what my ethnicity is (!), what my starting and ending salaries are (were) at my current or previous job. Is this all legal?? None of these inquiries is their business! I understand them asking me what my salary requirements are for their positions even though I have objections to this question too (they should ballpark the salaries expected to be earned) but for me to tell them what I’ve been been paid in other jobs is absurd. I don’t bother to finish applying and move on. Henry Payne

  2. Jacquelyn Kozar says

    The problem I have been experiencing is that there are a lot of job sites that are asking illegal questions before you submit your resume. I am not talking about the ones you are not obligated to answer I am talking about the required field – age, dates of grauation to be used to determine your age. That is just to name a few – I move on if they are asking illegal questions not the company I want to work for at any time.

  3. Terri says

    So, its illegal to ask these questions (noted in the article) during the “interview”, but what about post interview?
    I recently sent a “thank you” email to my interviewer(s) and then I received a reply asking for my date of birth and written authorization for them to conduct background check. Although I was hesitant, I realized the process was necessary in order to proceed with a potential job offer.
    I used the situation to my advantage by displaying my business and writing skills in my reply, further demonstrating to the employer my capabilities.

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