How to Handle an "Illegal" Interview Question

Liz Ryan

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Job-seekers are savvy enough to know that it’s not legal to discriminate against a job candidate on the basis of age, race, ethnicity, etc…but it’s still really tough to deal with these questions when you get them. You’re sitting in an interview, and the interviewer asks you, “So, how old are you?” or “So, do you expect to have kids?” We think of these as illegal questions. It’s not so much that the question is illegal, as it is that your answering the question makes it possible (easy, in fact) for the company to unlawfully discriminate against you. So here’s what I recommend you do.

The interviewer says “So, do you have any kids?” Don’t get upset. Look at him or her quizzically but still with a friendly gaze, think a moment, and then say “You know, it’s funny you should ask that. Just last week I got asked that question in a job interview, and then the interviewer said ‘Wait! Don’t answer the question, I shouldn’t have asked it. ’” Then sit back and smile gently. Don’t make a big deal of out it. Ninety percent of the time the interviewer will move on to the next question. If not, it’s up to you to decide whether to answer the question, or to smile quizzically again and say “I’d prefer not to answer. ” If you feel that answering the question is going to knock you out of the running for the job opportunity anyway, you can’t make it any worse by staying silent. And you may feel better about yourself if you stick to your standards.

If you do answer the question, and you don't get the job, you may have a claim for employment discrimination. In the U. S. , each state has a Department of Human Rights which handles these claims. And the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the body that gets involved with such “failure to hire" claims. It's up to you whether to go that route. But it's good to be prepared when the situation arises during an interview, so that you'll know at the outset - you don't have to answer the question.

Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR executive, an entrepreneur and a workplace expert. She is the founder and CEO of WorldWIT, the world's largest online network for professional women ( ). Liz lives in Boulder, Colorado.


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