Applying for a job can involve neatly typed resumes, lengthy applications and sweaty palms. But illegal job interview questions? Here's what to look for and what to do if you encounter them. Be sure to also download FindLaw's Guide to Hiring [pdf] to make sure you know your rights when seeking a new job.
Employers have enormous latitude in the kind of questions they can ask in an interview. But a series of laws beginning in the 1960's made certain kinds of personal information protected, closing down lines of questions about an applicant's race, beliefs, marital status, age, et cetera. States and municipalities have established even more protections, making it illegal to ask questions that would reveal such things as the applicant's sexual orientation. Affirmative action reaffirms these laws and demands that businesses with government contracts and more than 50 employees have a work force that represents the diversity of their society.
So that means the process is fair, right? The best person for the job gets hired?
Dream on. While an employer can no longer discriminate against you for the color of your skin, they can if they don't like the color of your shoes. They can't chose candidates based on their religion, but it doesn't hurt if the employer knows your dad or thinks you have a winning smile. An employer can discriminate to their heart's content, as long as they don't discriminate in certain protected areas.
From an employer's point of view, the interview process is about assessing an applicant's match to the position and the work culture. The hiring party wants to rule the applicant out or in as quickly as possible, and everything is in play - attire and composure as much as education and experience. (Read: small talk isn't really small talk.) That is why employers get into trouble when they ask questions that address attributes or background information about an applicant that is protected by law.
Where are you from? Are you disabled? What does that have to do with the job?
Let the interviewer know that the question was illegal
It can be tactfully done. If it puts your interviewer on alert, so be it. You can thank your lucky stars that you found out right away that the company is still in the dark ages.
If you can honestly give the answer they are looking for, you could consider answering the question. If the question is blatantly illegal, you can lie, too. What are they going to do, fire you for not letting them violate your civil rights?
Contact your local federal Equal Employment Opportunity office and file a claim.
If you are looking for a new job and would like to learn more about protected information and illegal questions, it will be helpful to read a book on the subject. Matthew J. DeLuca's Best Answers to the 201 Most Frequently Asked Interview Questions (1996) is an excellent book and has a chapter devoted just to illegal questions.