Isn’t That Illegal? Answering Uncomfortable Interview Questions
August 29, 2011

By Beth Braccio Hering

Keeping one’s cool when an interview chair turns into a hot seat can be difficult. Here are some examples of zingers thrown at candidates, and how some of them responded:

“My friends and I have been asked several times what we would do if we got pregnant. Our answer: ‘I can’t have children. I’m infertile.’ It always sets the interviewer on his (never asked this by a woman) heels. We decided that in the event that we did get the job and did get pregnant, we would cast it as a ‘miracle’ — and just be joyous with everyone about the heavenly news!” — Rebecca Raibley, Massachusetts

“I am a proud American but have a slight accent. When they ask me where I was born and I tell them, they say, ‘Oops, we just remembered we have no openings currently.’ So I’ve concluded that answering their illegal question will never get me a job, but if I refuse to answer it or tell them it’s illegal, that will not get me the job either. Quite a conundrum.” — Mo Abraham, St. Louis

“I was asked, ‘Isn’t [my past boss] a jerk?’ Obviously, I wanted to take the high road, and I wasn’t sure why the interviewer asked that question. So I responded, ‘He certainly makes an impression,’ and changed the subject. Since no further questions were asked along those lines, I think it was a test — maybe of quick thinking under pressure, maybe to see if I would dish dirt. Either way, never say anything negative about a past employer.” — Marilyn Santiesteban, Boston

“An interviewer once asked me to which charities I donated. I was uncomfortable with this question, as it seems quite personal. Donations are often based on personal criteria: health experience, politics, religion and other individual ideologies. I don’t believe people should be ‘qualified’ by the groups of their choice.” — Lisa Hanock-Jasie, New York

“I was asked in an interview once, ‘How do you get along with your mother?’ I responded, ‘If you’re trying to find out whether I can work well for a female boss, you can just ask me that. If you were my friend, I wouldn’t mind answering. But since this is an interview, I find that question inappropriate.'” — Dez Stephens, Nashville, Tennessee


Coming up with a response isn’t always easy when the voice inside you is screaming, “Why the heck is he asking me that?” While panic, anger and confusion are typical responses to uncomfortable questions, checking emotions is crucial to getting the interview back on track. The interviewer may be trying to judge your confidence level and how you handle pressure.

Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant and career strategist in Washington, D.C., advises his clients to answer inappropriate interview questions by politely saying, “That question makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. Would you mind if we talked about how specifically I might be able to work with department X of company Y?”

Candidates who have experienced uncomfortable interview questions on a certain topic may wish to practice suitable responses ahead of time. For instance, if a gap in employment seems to be an issue, be ready to talk about the skills you acquired or the contributions you made as a volunteer during that time.

Unfortunately, some interviewers persist in areas they shouldn’t.

“Obvious off-limit topics are family situation, age, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual preference, race or any questions that lead to more knowledge about the candidate through related questions — such as, ‘Will you need to make any special arrangements for family members should you be hired?’ or, ‘Have you ever missed work for illness or injury?'” says Terry Henley, director of compensation services at Employers Resource Association, a nonprofit serving small and medium-sized businesses in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

In this situation, Henley recommends that candidates say that they aren’t comfortable discussing the topic and then think about whether they wish to continue the interview. “If the applicant is certain that the question is illegal, he can tell the interviewer, understanding that it will probably mean that the interview will end soon and not end up in employment.” Filing charges with a state or federal agency is an option if a well-qualified candidate feels certain that the only reason he was denied the position was because of being a member of a protected class, but Henley cautions that “the likelihood for success in filing such a claim in these circumstances is low.”

While candidates have little to no control over what questions an interviewer chooses to ask, they do have power over something important: their own response. So set the tone that you’ve come to discuss why you’re the best person for the job — and nothing else.

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