How to Give Good Answers to Bad Questions

Most of us have been asked awkward questions in social situations. Are you pregnant? What did you pay for your home? How did the two of you meet? Do you like your job?

But being asked certain questions during a hiring process is a more serious matter. Even questions like, “What country are you from,” or “Are you married,” can get an interviewer in trouble.

But my intent here is to keep you out of trouble.

It is against the law — both Federal and state — for people like hiring managers and recruiters to ask certain questions. These are questions that are not related to the job under discussion. Interview and application questions must be relevant to the specifications of the job description, and not used to probe for personal facts.

Illegal Interview Questions

The anti-discriminatory laws protect people from being passed over for a position solely because of gender, religion, age, or other condition. As a result, employers are not allowed to inquire about:

  • Race or ethnicity
  • Skin color
  • Gender
  • Religion or spiritual practices
  • Nation of origin
  • Birthplace
  • Age
  • Physical or mental disabilities
  • Marital or family status
  • Sexual orientation

How to Answer Questions That Should Not Be Asked

If you are uncomfortable answering any question, your best approach may be to direct your answer to what the interviewer really needs to know.

For example, if an interviewer asks if you are a U.S. citizen, which is not legal to ask, you should reply simply that you are authorized to work in this country. An employer is within the law to ask if someone is authorized to work here, so you are in effect throwing the question back to him in a legal frame.

Handling the question like this can be a tactful way for you to save face for the interviewer.

Another choice is to change the topic of conversation and avoid the question.

This approach takes some conversational skill, but is still possible if you can be evasive. For example, if you are asked whether you are married, you can say, “It’s complicated.” If you are asked what country your parents come from, you could say, “I’m not sure.”

Even though you are legally protected, the reality is that refusing to answer a question could cost you a job offer. My advice to people in this position is to think about whether they really want to work somewhere where they are asked questions that are not appropriate. These questions betray a lack of sensitivity or training.

Your third option is to politely educate the interviewer that the question is not a legal one.

In many cases people, especially people in small or young companies, may simply be ignorant of the law. Just because the application or interviewer is asking an illegal question doesn’t necessarily mean that the intent was to discriminate.

Your answer could be, “I prefer not to answer that question. It’s against the law to ask it, and it could get the company in trouble.” Or you could simply smile and say pleasantly, “You do know that question in not allowed by law, don’t you?” If the question is about something private like your religion, you say could something like, “That’s too personal for me to discuss.”

And then be silent.

Of course, you can always just answer the questions, even if they are out-of-bounds. I don’t usually recommend this method because I feel it fosters old-fashioned thinking, whether it is intentionally discriminatory or not.

Although it may keep you from making waves, answering illegal questions may not be in your best interest in the long haul.

I also don’t recommend being argumentative or combative about the issue. If an employer has a bias against something you represent, it is better to handle it politely and move on.

You should be on the lookout for interviewers who will disguise questions as small talk or otherwise ask questions to get information they want. This is particularly a problem for women.

Because an employer knows he cannot ask if you are married or if you have children, he may ask leading questions such as, “Are you able to relocate,” or “Would working weekends be a problem.”

How you answer these questions depends on your circumstances, but it’s good to be aware that by getting chatty you can reveal too much about yourself.

If you are filling in a form that asks for nationality, gender, marital status, or similar information, you are free to leave it blank or X-out all possible answers.

You should know that you are entitled to file a claim against the employer or recruiter if you are asked illegal questions. You might choose to take this action as a political statement, or if you want to be hired no matter what the situation.

Filing a Claim

If you believe you have been discriminated against by an employer, recruiter, labor union or employment agency when applying for a job or while you are on the job because of your race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, or disability, you can do something about it.

You have rights that are legally protected if you have been discriminated against because you speak out about an illegal policy (such as working overtime without pay or being denied benefits) or for participating in an equal employment opportunity matter. You can file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

To file a discriminatory claim, you’ll need to talk to an attorney who handles labor issues, or contact your local EEOC office.

In the U.S., the Federal and state governments are on your side in the employment field. Prejudice and discrimination still exist in the workplace, so you can do your part by knowing your rights. These laws were hard-fought and cannot be denied. Being aware of them is part of being a good citizen and actually increases your chances of getting that job you’ll love.

Mir Garvy

Author: Mir Garvy

I’ve written resumes for 2,000+ job seekers just like you—and helped my clients land jobs with companies like Amazon, SAS, Google, Duke University, Travelocity, Cisco Systems, GlaxoSmithKline, Expedia, and IBM.