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Responding to Inappropriate Interview Questions

Preparing for an interview can be stressful, let alone when you have to respond to an interviewer asking inappropriate questions. On the other hand, depending on how captivated you are by the job prospect, you might feel pressured to answer every question, even the illegal ones.

Inappropriate questions include things relating to gender, age, religion, marital status, ethnicity, health, or any questions that can lead to discrimination against you. One example would be if an interviewer asked you if you wanted to have kids. If you answered yes to the question and the interviewer automatically thinks you wouldn’t be able to put your all into the job because of parenting responsibilities, that’s discrimination.

So, how are you supposed to respond when an illegal or inappropriate question is asked?

It’s always in your right to decline to answer any question that makes you uncomfortable. However, you may feel like doing so comes across as unfriendly or risks your candidacy for the job. If you do want to respond, there are ways you can do that.

In general, one way is by asking the interviewer to unpack the question more and explain how it’s relevant to the position. If the questions are more topic-specific, here’s how you can address those.

  1. If a question about age is asked, redirect the interviewer to how your experience is relevant to the role. Point out your previous accomplishments.
  2. If a question about gender is asked, answer the question by eliminating any word relating to gender. For example, if you’re asked what it would be like to work with a company that employs 90% females, answer by simply stating how you feel about the prospect of working for the company, gender aside.
  3. If a question about family planning is asked, answer by sharing how you feel about the position now, not hypothesizing how you will feel in the future.
  4. If a question about religion is asked, answer by saying that your faith will not interfere with your ability to do the job.
  5. If a question about salary is asked, answer by stating that you’re comfortable speaking more about that once there is a solid offer on the table. You shouldn’t have to discuss your prior salary until you know the salary you’d be offered in the new position.
  6. If a question about your criminal history is asked, it’s important to know you do have to answer if the question relates to the role. For example, if you’re interviewing for a position that includes handling money, the interviewer can ask if you’ve ever been convicted of theft.
  7. If a question about ethnicity or citizenship is asked, let the interviewer know you are legally allowed to work in the U.S. because they are allowed to ask that. If they ask more specifically about your race, that’s not something you need to answer.

Even if illegal questions can be frustrating or uncomfortable, let your professionalism shine through, and don’t panic. Keep any answers you have to them concise and general. It’s essential to respond gracefully when redirecting the conversation and be direct when asking how the question is relevant to the job.

The goal for both sides during an interview is to get to know the other person. In the case of the interviewee, the goal is to get to know the company too. Regardless, certain questions should always be off limits, and it’s important to know your rights.

Ever been asked an inappropriate question during the interview process? How did you respond? Join the conversation on LinkedIn and check out Being an Active Listener.