Personal And Offensive Questions

Personal, offensive, and illegal questions pose real problems to interviewees. If you object to the improper questions, you may offend the interviewer, yet by saying nothing it seems that the interviewer is being encouraged to continue his or her discriminatory ways. Knowing what is legal and what is illegal, and knowing effective techniques for combating improper questions, will enable you to respond appropriately when confronted by offensive and illegal questions.

Occasionally you will be asked personal questions which, while not illegal, are certainly inappropriate. If you are asked such a question, you must quickly decide whether you will answer it or tactfully decline. Because the interviewer will generally realize he’s touching a sensitive area, a gentle rebuff will usually cause the person to back off. It could be, “Mr. Hanson, I try not to get into personal issues during interviews.” Examples of such personal questions might include, “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Are you planning to get married?” or “Are you living together?” These questions are inappropriate and should not concern the interviewer. Just knowing that you don’t have to answer such questions often helps. Tactfully declining is the key. Don’t try to make the person feel ashamed, since that certainly would not help you. And don’t make too many negative assumptions about the person or the company because of the questions. The explanation for why the question is being asked often has more to do with curiosity than discrimination.

Some personality tests have been found illegal by the courts because they ask highly personal questions about religion, sexual practices, bathroom habits, and one’s inner thoughts (“Have you ever considered suicide?” “Have you ever been so angry you wanted to kill someone?”). Even though the employer rarely actually sees how the questions were answered, and they are either scored by a computer or a psychologist, several tests have been found unsuitable for employment screening. People are frequently very offended by the questions and have refused to answer them even for jobs that they really wanted. There is no place in employment interviewing for that invasion of privacy.

Illegal Questions

Because most interviewers are untrained either in the art or legality of interviewing, it is fairly common for interviewees to be asked illegal questions. You should know your rights and know in advance how you plan to handle illegal or inappropriately prying questions. Virtually all states have laws or regulations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, medical condition, physical handicap, marital status, and age, particularly as it pertains to application forms and interviewing.

Generally, questions about your or your spouse’s national origin, including questions about your native language, are illegal. Employers cannot ask about your marital status or the number or ages of children or dependents. Nor can they ask questions regarding pregnancy or birth control use, or plans for having children. Employers are allowed to ask questions about disabilities in the following form: “Do you have any physical condition or handicap which may limit your ability to perform the job applied for? If yes, what can be done to accommodate your limitations?” They cannot, however, ask questions regarding an ap-plicant’s general medical condition or illnesses, or regarding an applicant having received Worker’s Compensation. Nor can they ask questions such as, “Do you have any physical disabilities or handicaps?”

Employers are not allowed to ask questions regarding religion. A question such as, “Are there any holidays or days of the week you can’t work?” would probably be held illegal, even if religion was not specified. However, it would probably be acceptable to ask, “We often work holidays and weekends. Is there anything that would prevent you from doing so?”

You’ll notice that there is often a fine line between acceptable and illegal. Those who really want to find out a particular piece of information can probably find a legal way to do so.

Employers can ask if you have ever been convicted of a felony, but cannot ask if you have ever been arrested. In some states even the question about a felony would have to be worded very carefully. In those states the felony conviction in question must be job related. The question posed to a controller might need to be, “Have you ever been convicted of embezzlement?” rather than “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

Dealing With Illegal Questions

There are several ways to deal with illegal or prying questions. Each of them can be effective, but it is important to have decided in advance which you will use and then practice it. Without practice it is unlikely you will handle this tricky process effectively. There are several alternatives when addressing illegal questions:

1. Simply answer the question without revealing that you are the least bit offended. For most illegal and prying questions, that is my recommendation. To respond in that way, simply assume that the person means no harm, is simply curious, and is unaware that some people might be offended by such questions.

2. Address the real and more basic concern of the interviewer rather than the surface concern. For example, if the interviewer asks, “Do you have any children [an illegal question]?” the employer is not specifically concerned about children, but whether you will likely miss any work because of caring for a sick child. Your response could be, “I have three children in school and they have excellent full-time child care.”

3. Tactfully remind the interviewer that the question is illegal. You might say: “That’s not a legal question. I’d rather cover other points.” If you do respond in this way, it is important to continue the interview by demonstrating the same professional manner you had prior to the question. The interviewer may already feel somewhat foolish for having asked such a question, or may feel perturbed at you for being so sensitive. So it’s important to proceed with the interview as if nothing happened. In a sense it has become your responsibility to put the interviewer at ease so both of you can concentrate on the key issues of the interview. Because you’ve demonstrated both your assertiveness and your knowledge of the law, it is unlikely you’ll be asked another illegal question.

4. A very simple response is to merely have a quizzical look on your face and tactfully ask, “Why do you ask that?” The interviewer will likely go on to another question, but if the person persists, you’ll need a different tactic.

5. Ask how the question is relevant to the position. “That question really does not seem relevant to the position. Could we concentrate on areas that relate directly to the job?” Once again, a statement like this must be said with a great deal of tact.

Generally it is good to answer questions the best you can, without confronting the interviewer about legality. At the same time, you should be looking for a pattern of discrimination. One illegal question can be written off as a simple mistake, but several such questions will indicate something quite different. If you think you want the position, continue answering the questions or tactfully decline if you have taken that approach, but make a mental note of each illegal question. Write them down immediately after you leave the interview. If you don’t get the job and you decide to claim discrimination, your notes will be critical. If you feel you have been discriminated against, you may get good results by speaking to the company’s director of human resources and describing what happened. If you do not receive satisfaction, you must hire an attorney or work through your state’s human rights department.

Sandra let him have it when he asked if she had children.

Predict which illegal questions you are most likely to face and decide in advance which approach you will take. You can also choose to reveal information about yourself even though it would be illegal for an employer to ask about it. Parents, for example, will sometimes voluntarily tell an interviewer that they have children, but then go on to explain that because of their ages, there will be no problem with overtime or travel. It might be stated like this after being asked to talk about yourself: “I’ve been working in this field now for ten years and I continue to enjoy it. I have two teenagers who are both very independent. I’m able to travel, and I have never hesitated to work overtime when that was necessary. I’m known as a can-do person who gets a lot accomplished.” A person in a wheelchair might indicate that she drives a car, is an athlete, or has no work limitations. As with any issue, your challenge is to remove any objections an employer may have, whether the objections are fair or not.

If you feel you may face discrimination, be clear on the laws and regulations of your state. Most states have a Human Rights Commission or an equivalent agency. Each organization will have published examples of questions it considers legal and illegal. You could also speak to a representative to receive specific advice about your own unique situation.

State Guidelines On Legal And Illegal Questions

The following guidelines will help you to better understand which questions are legal and illegal. Each state provides guidelines specific to that state. The guidelines shown here have been borrowed from California, New York, and Washington. Your own state may vary, but most states share a great deal of agreement on what is legal and illegal.


Acceptable: “Have you ever used another name?” or “Is any additional information relevant to a change of name, use of an assumed name, or nickname, necessary to enable a check on your work and education record? If yes, please explain.”

Unacceptable: Maiden name.


Acceptable: Place of residence.

Unacceptable: Do you rent or own your home?


Acceptable: Statement that hiring is subject to verification that applicant meets legal age requirements. “If hired can you show proof of age?” “Are you over eighteen years of age?” “If under eighteen, can you, after employment, submit a work permit?”

Unacceptable: Age, birthdate, dates of attendance or completion of elementary school or high school, questions which tend to identify applicants over age 40.


Acceptable: “Can you, after employment, submit verification of your legal right to work in the United States?” Also acceptable would be to make a statement that such proof may be required after employment.

Unacceptable: Birthplace of applicant, applicant’s parents, spouse, or other relatives. “Are you a U.S. citizen?” (some states permit this question) or citizenship of applicant, applicant’s parents, spouse, or other relatives. Requirements that applicant produce naturalization or alien card prior to being offered a position.

National origin

Acceptable: Languages applicant reads, speaks, or writes.

Unacceptable: Questions as to nationality, ancestry, national origin. “What is your mother tongue?” or language commonly used by applicant. How applicant acquired ability to read, write, or speak a foreign language.

Gender, marital status, family

Acceptable: Name and address of parent or guardian if applicant is a minor. Statement of company policy regarding work assignment of employees who are related.

Unacceptable: Questions which indicate applicant’s gender or marital status. “Do you wish to be addressed as Miss? Mrs.? or Ms.?” “Are you married? Single? Divorced? Separated?” Number and/or ages of children or dependents. Questions regarding pregnancy or child bearing. Name or address of relative, spouse, or children of adult applicant. “With whom do you reside?” or “Do you live with your parents?”

Birth control

Acceptable: None.

Unacceptable: Questions regarding birth control, inquiry into capacity to reproduce.

Race, color

Acceptable: None.

Unacceptable: Questions as to applicant’s race or color. Questions regarding applicant’s complexion, or color of skin, eyes, or hair.

Physical description, photograph

Acceptable: Statement that a photograph may be required after employment.

Unacceptable: Questions as to applicant’s height and weight. Require applicant to affix a photograph to application. Request applicant, at his or her option, to submit a photograph. Require a photograph after interview but before employment.

Physical condition, handicap

Acceptable: Statement by employer that offer may be contingent on applicant passing a job-related physical examination. “Do you have any physical condition or handicap which may limit your ability to perform the job applied for? If yes, what can be done to accommodate your limitations?”

Unacceptable: Questions regarding applicant’s general medical condition, state of health, or illnesses. Questions regarding receipt of Worker’s Compensation. “Do you have any physical disabilities or handicaps?” “Have you ever been treated for any of the following diseases . . . ?” “Do you have now or have you ever had a drug or alcohol problem?”


Acceptable: Statement by employer of regular days, hours, or shifts to be worked.

Unacceptable: Questions regarding applicant’s religion or religious days observed. “Does your religion prevent you from working weekends or holidays?”

Arrest, criminal record

Acceptable: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony, or within [specified time period, such as five years] a misdemeanor which resulted in imprisonment? Give details.” In California and perhaps other states, such a statement must be accompanied by a statement that a conviction will not necessarily disqualify applicant from the job applied for. In some states questions about convictions must be limited to a specific time period (seven years in Washington). Some states require that questions about convictions only be asked if relevant to the position, such as questions about theft or embezzlement of a person who would handle money. Statement that bonding is a condition of hire.

Unacceptable: Arrest record or “Have you ever been arrested?”


Acceptable: Statement that bonding is a condition of employment.

Unacceptable: Questions regarding refusal or cancellation of bonding in the past.

Military service

Acceptable: Questions regarding relevant skills acquired during applicant’s U.S. military service.

Unacceptable: General questions regarding military service such as dates and type of discharge. Questions regarding service in a foreign military.

Economic status

Acceptable: None.

Unacceptable: Questions regarding applicant’s current or past assets, liabilities, or credit rating, including bankruptcy or garnishment.


Acceptable: “By whom were you referred for a position here?” Names of people willing to provide professional or character references for applicant.

Unacceptable: Questions asked of applicant’s former employers or acquaintances which elicit information specifying the applicant’s race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, physical handicap, medical condition, marital status, age, or gender.

Notice in case of emergency

Acceptable: Name and address of person to be notified in case of emergency.

Unacceptable: Name and address of relatives to be notified in case of accident or emergency.

Suggested Answers To Illegal Questions

Unfortunately, illegal questions still occur. You should predict which of the illegal questions you are most likely to be asked. If you’re over 50 or if you’re a woman, you know what they are likely to be. Don’t wait until faced with the questions. Decide now how you will handle them. Remember that your goal is to get a job offer. Once you get the offer you can decide whether you want to work for the person or the organization. The following responses are geared for those who decide not to confront their interviewer when asked one or more of these illegal questions.

Are you married?

The interviewer is really trying to determine how dedicated you’ll be to the organization and to what extent family obligations will interfere. Of course, this question is usually addressed to women. If you are married but without children your response might be, “Yes I am. My work is very important to me, though, so I make sure nothing interferes with my giving 100 percent to my job. I’m very career oriented. I can travel and work weekends when necessary.” That’s a fine statement for the person who is willing to work 50 or more hours per week, work weekends, and travel occasionally, but not every woman or man is so inclined. That’s why you’ve got to phrase your response as positively as possible while still being true to yourself.

A person who really does not want to work a lot of overtime might phrase it: “Yes I am. My work is very important to me so I make sure nothing interferes with my giving 100 percent. I do whatever is neces-sary to get all my work done and do it at a very high-quality level.” Notice the difference. The first person is claiming that nothing will interfere, and that overtime and travel are quite acceptable. Whether the person has children does not matter since the person either has excellent day care or the spouse is able to take over when there is a sick child. The second person is indicating that work is important but that it has some limitations. This person is closer to the norm. Most men and women, while being ambitious, really do want to work a 40–45 hour week and will go to great lengths to keep it to that. Because they know their limitations, they typically work very hard at being efficient and productive during those 40 hours. In fact some of them get more real work done than those who put in 55 hours. The point is, the second type of answer is very acceptable and is certainly appropriate for the person who takes that point of view.

When do you plan to start a family?

This is another question that is asked almost exclusively of women. If this is a well-crafted question on the part of the interviewer, he knows it will reveal whether you are married, whether you already have children, and what your future plans are. This is a blatantly discriminatory question, and there is no excuse for it in these days when even small companies should have enough sophistication to know something about the law. The small employer, of course, will have trouble covering for someone who takes six months maternity leave. You can put this person at ease with a couple of responses: “No, we’re not going to have children. We’re both very career oriented.” Or, “I do intend to have children, but not for several years, and when I do my leave would be very short.” Of course, there are some jobs where the employer is not necessarily needing a ten-year commitment; they simply don’t want to train you and have you leave in 6–12 months.

What religion are you?

Some would ask this question in order to discriminate, while others are concerned that those who are actively religious will seek to convert people and will interfere with employee productivity. Your goal is to keep either from happening. Do not let the interviewer trap you into debating some specific doctrine. Even if you argue with supreme logic or emotion, you will lose.

If you practice a religion you might say, “I attend church [synagogue, mosque] but I don’t mix religion with work. I’ve always been very dedicated to my work. I get along with everyone regardless of their religion.” If you said synagogue or mosque, you have revealed your religion. If you merely say, “I attend services,” that has not revealed your religion. Decide in advance how you will handle it if a person presses you to be more specific and name the denomination or religion you belong to. Of course if you feel perfectly comfortable saying “I’m Baptist” or “I’m Jewish,” then feel free to say so. Just realize that some may discriminate against you merely because you are Baptist, Jewish, or Buddhist.

If you do not practice a religion, you might say, “I do have my own beliefs that are very important to me, but I’m not involved with any organized religion. And I certainly don’t involve my beliefs with my work.”

How old are you? or What is your age?

When answering this question, show that you are comfortable with your age, that you are proud of what you have accomplished, and that you are a person full of energy. “I’m 54 [or, I’m in my fifties], and I have 28 years in this field. I love this industry as much as I did 20 years ago, and I’ve never stopped learning.” If appropriate go on to mention some of the benefits you offer because of your maturity or because of your vast experience. If you know that many of the people who interview you will be younger than you, plan your answer and wow them with your energy and enthusiasm. When interviewed by a person who would be your boss and is younger than you, look for opportunities to indicate you are adaptable, open minded, and work easily with people from other cultures and backgrounds. That will help remove the younger boss’ concern that you’ll be difficult to supervise.

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Offensive and Illegal Questions

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