“How old are you?” If you’ve ever had a question like this in a job interview, it’s an instant red flag.
Responding to such questions can compromise your chances of getting the job, and the interviewer could be putting the company at risk for a lawsuit. In fact, interviewers are not allowed to ask any questions that could expose personal details about a candidate. However, these kinds of questions emerge in interviews all the time.
Surveys from CareerBuilder show that 20% of hiring managers have asked candidates a prohibited question during the interview, although many only realize their mistake after the fact. More troubling, though, is that well over a third of the 2,100 hiring and human resources managers admitted they were not sure of the legality of such questions.
This list includes questions interviewers are not permitted to ask but sometimes do anyway:
- What is your religious affiliation?
- Are you pregnant?
- What is your political affiliation?
- What is your race, color or ethnicity?
- How old are you?
- Are you disabled?
- Are you married?
- Do you have children or plan to?
- Are you in debt?
- Do you social drink or smoke?
While these questions are not explicitly illegal, they can suggest an illegal motive, said Rebecca Pontikes, an employment law attorney who represents workers for the Boston firm Pontikes Law.
“Title VII doesn’t have a list of questions thou shalt not ask,” she said, in reference to the section of the federal Civil Rights Act that bans employment discrimination. And yet, she explained, companies that want to stamp out discrimination often develop guidelines about questions that are off-limits in interviews.
“It’s just a bad idea to ask those questions,” said labor attorney Peter Moser. “It can be used as evidence of discrimination, and why would you ask that if it’s not relevant to the job?”
So what are some suggested responses for candidates being interviewed if one of these shady questions comes up?
Take the example of a hiring manager who asks a woman if she has kids. One way to handle the question is to address the implications behind it head-on.
“Think about what’s really being communicated,” Pontikes said. “You can say, ‘If your company is concerned about my availability or my dedication to the firm, please be assured I plan to be very dedicated. I’ll put in long hours, I’ll work from home if I have to, and here’s what I did at other places while I had children.’”
Another approach is to shift the conversation toward your qualifications for the job.
“Don’t be disapproving of the question,” Pontikes said. “You’re being evaluated and, to be frank, that person has the power. Redirecting to your qualifications is a good way to address the awkwardness.”
Moser also explained that he’s not surprised that such questions get asked. As he noted, “People chit chat in interviews, and it’s natural to talk about things that might give you information that’s not job-related, but could be used to discriminate against a person,” he said.