I’m sure you join me in wishing that “Tell me about yourself” was against the rules, but while that question may be perfectly acceptable in any interview – there are some questions hiring managers are not allowed to ask you in an interview.
Most human resources professionals know better and will not make these mistakes. However, interviews are often conducted by an inexperienced interviewer, perhaps a department head, small business owner or other hiring authority, who doesn’t know that some topics are actually taboo. These questions generally fall into common areas of discrimination – like race, sexual orientation, age and health status.
Employers are not allowed to ask questions that could determine your national origin:
- Where were you born?
- What is your native language?
Interviewers cannot ask questions that will reveal your marital or parental status:
- Are you married?
- Do you have children?
- Do you plan to start a family?
Age discrimination can be a problem, too:
- How old are you?
- When did you graduate?
Religion can also be an issue for some employers:
- Do you celebrate Yom Kippur?
- What church do you go to?
Your health is your own business, not your employer’s:
- Do you have a disability?
- Do you have a chronic illness?
It is illegal to discriminate against you for being in the armed services or reserves:
- Are you in the National Guard?
And what you do on your own time is private (as long as it’s legal):
- Do you smoke?
- Do you use alcohol?
You won’t encounter these questions often – again, most human resources pros are trained not to ask these questions. But you never know…
How to respond to an illegal interview question?
Well, that depends. I’ve been known to volunteer my age (if I think it’s an asset) or mention my kids (but I probably shouldn’t). I like to think of an interview as a conversation with someone I don’t know yet.
If you think the interviewer is trolling for inappropriate information on purpose, tell them they’re not allowed to ask that and politely move on to your next opportunity.
If you think they sincerely don’t know, are just being friendly without realizing they are doing something wrong, it’s a tougher call. I would probably smile, laugh a little and give them a quizzical, “Wow. I’ve never been asked that in an interview. Are you sure we’re supposed to talk about that?” and hope for the best! Try moving the interview along if you can.
Not everyone has the best intentions and not everyone is fully trained. My recommendation – Keep your wits about you, know the rules and listen to your gut! If something feels off – you probably don’t want to work there anyway!
Wendy Stackhouse, Consultant for Artisan Creative