You don’t go to a job interview preparing for the questions you don’t want to answer. You want to come across as open and someone who can answer almost any tricky inquiry with graceful ease.
But the next time you dust off those understated pumps and squeeze into a pair of Spanx for a job interview, keep in mind there really are a few questions you might not want to answer. Not because you have anything to hide, but because they fall under laws protecting you from employer discrimination.
Remember, the person on the other side of the job interview likely does this as a profession. They’re in that room to represent the employer’s interests. You need to be prepared to adequately represent your own.
A little background on why these legal protections matter in the first place. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws set up what they call “protected” classes. Many were established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, like race, color or religion, and it was later amended to include pregnancy. These protections were hard won and serve to help people earn a living regardless of whether their employer agrees with their religion or whether they have a disability. These protections matter for millions of Americans.
Thanks to these laws, no American can be discriminated against by an employer based on their age, disability, genetic information, national origin, pregnancy, race, color, religion, sex or as a form of retaliation. There are other rules about equal pay for the genders, so admittedly enforcement of these laws is a bit dodgy. But nonetheless, you should be aware of your rights.
Now, most interviewers aren’t going to come out and ask, “Hey, so are you thinking about getting knocked up anytime soon?” Most hiring managers are smart enough to know they can’t just ask, “So what is your race, anyway?” or “Do you attend church services regularly?”
That would be tacky. Instead, according to experts, the questions tend to try to prompt you into giving away personal information they otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to ask legally.
Here are a few examples of illegal interview questions you’ve probably answered before — I know I sure have.
1. Do you have a family?
An interviewer cannot ask anything about your marital status or future family plans.
We all have answered the question, thinking it was just aimless conversation to get to know each other. “Well, I have a husband and two dogs.” If you’re a woman in your 20s or 30s, that manager might assume you’re going to get pregnant and start a family at any moment, and opt for another hire who won’t need 12 weeks of maternity leave.
Also, it can be a way to try to get information about your sexual orientation, which is completely illegal and none of their business.
This includes child care arrangements, your spouse’s job or salary or anything else about your personal life.
The only family-related question an interviewer is allowed to ask is, “Are any of your family members employed by this organization or its competitor?”
2. Where do you live?
Where you live, with whom you live, whether you rent or own are all illegal questions in an interview. Often an interviewer will try to gauge the length of a prospective hire’s commute, with the idea that a longer, more arduous commute will likely result in more missed days of work than someone who lives much closer.
The only legal question an interviewer can ask in this regard is your address — a post-office box is legit too.
3. How old are you?
Another variation on this theme is the “when did you graduate?” line of questioning. You don’t have to answer those questions. EEOC rules protect anyone 40 or older from being discriminated against, and any questions that try to identify your age are no good. “Are you 18, and can you provide proof of age if you’re hired?” is all they’re allowed to ask.
4. Do you prefer Ms., Miss or Mrs.?
Uh, nope. That’s just a sneaky way to find out about your marital status. Always opt for Ms. It’s appropriately ambiguous and will give you a Gloria Steinem vibe.
5. Have you ever been arrested?
Being arrested is a much different situation from being convicted of a crime. Employers are allowed to ask about convictions and other acts of dishonesty or run-ins with the law, like speeding tickets, but being arrested does not automatically mean the person was guilty of anything, so they can’t ask about that.
6. Are you a U.S. citizen?
Seems simple enough, but this could force an applicant to divulge protected information about race or their family’s religious affiliation or nationality. They can ask whether you can provide proof of citizenship after being hired. Beyond that, it’s considered a fishing expedition for personal information.
So before your next interview, prepare yourself to gracefully navigate these illegal questions. Some you may just decide are easier to answer. But you should be aware of the kinds of information hiring managers are trying to get you to divulge. The first step toward a healthy employee and employer relationship is mutual respect, so make sure you’re getting what you deserve.
Now go get ’em, tiger. You’re rocking those understated pumps.