Employment laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace apply to interviews as well. As a result, questions that probe race, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, age, marital status, family situation, or disabilities are illegitimate in an interview. However, many interviewers are not familiar enough with the law to know when they have passed into potentially discriminatory territory. A few interviewers ask illegal questions reasoning that they are protected by your desire to obtain the job. In either case, dealing with illicit questions is delicate. Know what can be asked, what cannot, and what to do if the interviewer asks anyway.
Forbidden Questions about Race
Examples: What is your skin color?
What is your race?
Is your spouse Caucasian/Hispanic/African American/Asian, etc?
Exceptions: There are no fair questions about race in an interview or application, but an employer can allow you to voluntarily indicate your race on your application.
Forbidden Questions about National Origin
Examples: You sound like you have an accent; where are you from?
Where were you born?
Are you an American citizen?
Exceptions: Employers are required to hire only those employees who can legally work in the United States. For that reason, employers can ask whether you are eligible to work in the United States.
Suspect Questions about Age
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects workers over 40 in private companies of twenty employees or more and government organizations.
Examples: When were you born?
When did you graduate from high school?
How old are you?
Exceptions: The act does not prohibit interviewers from posing questions about age, but does prohibit discrimination on these grounds unless age directly affects the job. An employer can rightfully inquire whether the candidate meets the minimum federal age requirements for employment (usually 14-17 years old).
Forbidden Questions about Religion
Examples: Do you go to church?
Are you religious?
What religion are you?
Do you take time off work for religious purposes?
Exceptions: Organizations that have a specific religious orientation might ask questions relevant to religious practices and beliefs.
Forbidden Questions about Disabilities and Health
Examples: Do you have any disabilities or medical conditions?
How serious is your disability?
Do you take any prescription drugs?
Have you ever been in rehab?
Have you ever been an alcoholic?
How many sick days did you take last year?
Do you have AIDS?
Have you been diagnosed with any mental illnesses?
Have you ever received worker's compensation or been on disability leave?
Exceptions: Employers may ask whether you have any conditions that would keep you from performing the specific tasks of the job for which you are applying. They may also require that all candidates for a certain position pass through a medical examination that is relevant to the responsibilities of that job. Employers can subject candidates to illegal drug tests or ask you whether you take illegal drugs.
Forbidden Questions about Family Situation
Examples: Do you have small children?
Are you planning to have children soon?
What is your marital status?
What is your maiden name?
Are you pregnant?
Exceptions: Employers can inquire whether you have ever worked under a different name or whether you have personal responsibilities that could interfere with requirements of the job like travel or overtime hours.
Forbidden Questions about Sexual Orientation and Political Affiliation
Executive Order 13087 acts as a guideline against sexual discrimination or party discrimination in the federal government.
Examples: Are you straight or gay?
How do you feel about working with gay or bisexual people?
Who did you vote for in the last election?
Do you belong to a party?
Exceptions: This executive order does not bind all employers, but protections exist at least for federal civilian workers.
Now that you know what is permissible and what is discriminatory, consider how you might prepare for a situation in which the illegal arises. Your action depends on your goals and what makes you feel comfortable. Three basic paths lie open to you.
You could forfeit your rights and answer the question, hoping that it will deepen connections with the employer rather than incite bias. There might be times when you discover that your interviewer goes to a certain church or has family from a certain country that is similar to yours. You might not feel threatened to disclose information about yourself that could be subject to discrimination.
Alternatively, you could discreetly refuse to answer the question but persist in trying to secure the job. For example, you might avoid answering the question directly but address the concern that it implies. If asked whether you plan to have children, you might reply: "I take strides to balance my work and my personal life. I can assure you that I will be focused and committed to my responsibilities here, and my personal life will not interfere with my performance." If you elect not to answer the question but you wish to secure the position, take pains to set the interviewer at ease. If the interviewer feels embarrassed or chastised by your response, the interview could plummet rapidly.
You could also determine that you have no desire to work in a company that probes in potentially discriminatory ways. You might sense bias or negativity in the interviewer or feel like the environment is somehow hostile to you or other people. If you decide on the spot that you do not want the job, you can take overt action. You could go so far as to excuse yourself from the interview and even file a complaint or suit. If you decide to pursue formal recourse, you can contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.