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Inappropriate Questions

Have you ever felt uncomfortable about a question someone asked in a job interview?

Frankly, some things are none of your prospective employer's business. Moreover, many types of questions are not only inappropriate, but even illegal.

Federal and state laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and others legally bar interviewers from asking questions about race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, age, national origin, marital status, or family matters. While questioners might throw in the odd zinger, questions should focus exclusively on the position and your qualifications for it.

If a prospective employer asks an inappropriate question, it puts you in a delicate position. "Whether the question is legal or not, you still might have an incentive to answer it," said Bill Coleman, Vice President of Compensation at "And you have to consider the implications of calling the employer's attention to the fact that the question is illegal."

The interviewer who asks an illegal question may not know he or she is breaking the law. It may be intended as idle small talk, an attempt to get to know you better as a person - so try to put the question in its intended context. "The reason some questions are illegal is to prevent potential employers from discriminating against candidates," said Coleman, adding that not all inappropriate questions are asked with discriminatory intent. In fact, it could be the opposite. A hiring manager who is inexperienced at interviewing, for example, might have very constructive intentions for asking inappropriate questions - such as trying to diversify a team. "A constructive intention doesn't change the legality of the question," said Coleman, "But it could affect your decision whether to answer it."

Other times the intention is to plan carefully for the future of a business. Venture capitalists are notorious for asking women entrepreneurs about their plans for having children, something they are allowed to do as they consider investing in a business, though not when recruiting executives for a portfolio company. And although most women entrepreneurs would prefer not to let their pregnancies become deal points, the people with money to invest would prefer to be able to expect when their CEO might be expecting.

If you believe it is in your best interest to defer answering an interview question, use tact and grace to explain that the question does not relate to your abilities or qualifications for the position. If an interviewer's questions make you very uncomfortable, think twice about whether this is a company you want to work for.

Here are some examples of illegal job interview questions.

  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?
  • How many times have you been married?
  • Are you in a committed relationship right now?
  • How does your spouse feel about your working here?
  • Do you rent or own your home?
  • Whom do you live with?
  • What is your sexual orientation?
  • What's your ethnicity/nationality?
  • What is your first language?
  • Were your parents born in this country?
  • What is your racial background?
  • Are you religious? Do you attend church?
  • Do you intend to have children? How many?
  • Do you have children?
  • What are your child care arrangements?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • Do you have any disabilities?
  • Have you had any recent illnesses or surgeries?
  • Do you work out regularly?
  • Do you smoke?
  • Have you ever been addicted to drugs?
  • What is your political affiliation?
  • What organizations do you belong to?
  • Have you been injured on the job?
  • Have you ever filed for workers' compensation before?
  • Have you ever declared bankruptcy?
  • Where do you bank?
  • Have you ever been arrested? (Questions about convictions are legal, however, and are considered to be security measures.)

- Johanna Schlegel, Editor-in-Chief and Brian Braiker, contributor

Copyright 2000-2004 ©, Inc.

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