- The Net's Premier Resume Writing and Editing Service
Employment laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace apply
to interviews as well. As a result, questions that probe race, national
origin, sexual orientation, religion, age, marital status, family
situation, or disabilities are illegitimate in an interview. However,
many interviewers are not familiar enough with the law to know when
they have passed into potentially discriminatory territory. A few
interviewers ask illegal questions reasoning that they are protected
by your desire to obtain the job. In either case, dealing with illicit
questions is delicate. Know what can be asked, what cannot, and
what to do if the interviewer asks anyway.
Forbidden Questions about Race
Examples: What is your skin color?
What is your race?
Is your spouse Caucasian/Hispanic/African American/Asian, etc?
Exceptions: There are no fair questions about race in an interview
or application, but an employer can allow you to voluntarily
indicate your race on your application.
Forbidden Questions about National Origin
Examples: You sound like you have an accent;
where are you from?
Where were you born?
Are you an American citizen?
Exceptions: Employers are required to hire only those employees
who can legally work in the United States. For that reason,
employers can ask whether you are eligible to work in the United
Suspect Questions about Age
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
protects workers over 40 in private companies of twenty employees
or more and government organizations.
Examples: When were you born?
When did you graduate from high school?
How old are you?
Exceptions: The act does not prohibit interviewers from posing
questions about age, but does prohibit discrimination on these
grounds unless age directly affects the job. An employer can
rightfully inquire whether the candidate meets the minimum federal
age requirements for employment (usually 14-17 years old).
Forbidden Questions about Religion
Examples: Do you go to church?
Are you religious?
What religion are you?
Do you take time off work for religious purposes?
Exceptions: Organizations that have a specific religious orientation
might ask questions relevant to religious practices and beliefs.
Forbidden Questions about Disabilities and Health
Examples: Do you have any disabilities or
How serious is your disability?
Do you take any prescription drugs?
Have you ever been in rehab?
Have you ever been an alcoholic?
How many sick days did you take last year?
Do you have AIDS?
Have you been diagnosed with any mental illnesses?
Have you ever received worker's compensation or been on disability
Exceptions: Employers may ask whether you have any conditions
that would keep you from performing the specific tasks of the
job for which you are applying. They may also require that all
candidates for a certain position pass through a medical examination
that is relevant to the responsibilities of that job. Employers
can subject candidates to illegal drug tests or ask you whether
you take illegal drugs.
Forbidden Questions about Family Situation
Examples: Do you have small children?
Are you planning to have children soon?
What is your marital status?
What is your maiden name?
Are you pregnant?
Exceptions: Employers can inquire whether you have ever worked
under a different name or whether you have personal responsibilities
that could interfere with requirements of the job like travel
or overtime hours.
Forbidden Questions about Sexual Orientation and Political Affiliation
Executive Order 13087 acts as a guideline against
sexual discrimination or party discrimination in the federal government.
Examples: Are you straight or gay?
How do you feel about working with gay or bisexual people?
Who did you vote for in the last election?
Do you belong to a party?
Exceptions: This executive order does not
bind all employers, but protections exist at least for federal
Now that you know what is permissible and what
is discriminatory, consider how you might prepare for a situation
in which the illegal arises. Your action depends on your goals and
what makes you feel comfortable. Three basic paths lie open to you.
You could forfeit your rights and answer the question, hoping that
it will deepen connections with the employer rather than incite
bias. There might be times when you discover that your interviewer
goes to a certain church or has family from a certain country that
is similar to yours. You might not feel threatened to disclose information
about yourself that could be subject to discrimination.
Alternatively, you could discreetly refuse to answer the question
but persist in trying to secure the job. For example, you might
avoid answering the question directly but address the concern that
it implies. If asked whether you plan to have children, you might
reply: "I take strides to balance my work and my personal life.
I can assure you that I will be focused and committed to my responsibilities
here, and my personal life will not interfere with my performance."
If you elect not to answer the question but you wish to secure the
position, take pains to set the interviewer at ease. If the interviewer
feels embarrassed or chastised by your response, the interview could
You could also determine that you have no desire to work in a company
that probes in potentially discriminatory ways. You might sense
bias or negativity in the interviewer or feel like the environment
is somehow hostile to you or other people. If you decide on the
spot that you do not want the job, you can take overt action. You
could go so far as to excuse yourself from the interview and even
file a complaint or suit. If you decide to pursue formal recourse,
you can contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.