Addressing Illegal Questions

Equal Employment Opportunity laws prevent employers from asking questions about race, ethnicity, or color; age; country of national origin or birthplace; marital status or pregnancy status; military discharge status; sexual orientation; disability or genetic information; arrest or conviction record; and religion.

How to Respond

Although most interviewers behave ethically, candidates report instances of being asked inappropriate/illegal questions. If you’re asked an inappropriate/illegal question, you have a right to choose how you will respond.

  • Confront the issue with the interviewer: “It’s illegal for you to ask this question.” Though this will be awkward for you and the interviewer and make it difficult to move forward, it’s the accurate thing to do. A softer version would be, “I prefer not to answer that question, as it’s my legal right.” Either is best followed with, “But I’d be happy to answer any questions related to the position.” Another approach is asking, “Can you help me understand why this matters in the context of this position? I’d like to learn as much as I can about the role.”
  • Answer the concern behind the question: If you believe from how the question was asked that there is something that you are willing to share, address it. For example, “You seem to be concerned that my personal life may interfere with my ability to do the job. I want to assure you that I keep my personal and professional lives separate and that my personal life won’t be an issue.” You can also respond, “My choice to pursue nursing at this point of my life is something I am excited about. I feel that the life experience I have will be an asset when working with patients.” More simply, you can say, “I have the ability to interact with people of varied cultural backgrounds.”
  • Answer the question directly if you feel that there was no ill intent and you are comfortable sharing the requested information.

However, some forms of discrimination are subtler — employers may draw conclusions or make assumptions based on your appearance or resume. Some interviewees find that addressing the issue at the beginning of the interview relaxes them; others prefer to address it at the end of the interview when they have hopefully shown themselves to be fully qualified.

If you are concerned that you could face this type of discrimination, you may want to work through your personal response with a career counseling office.

Sample Responses

Asking how you will deal or have dealt with people from diverse backgrounds is good. However, asking about your race, ethnicity, or color, or making assumptions about you based on your name or resume, is not appropriate. If you choose not to confront the issue directly, you might want to address it indirectly. Examples include, “I am comfortable dealing with people from diverse backgrounds and making people from backgrounds different from mine comfortable with me.”
Though asking someone’s age is illegal, the employer may do older job seekers a favor by asking. Ageism is still common in the workplace and is frequently assessed visually or from your resume. Having the opportunity to address why your age should not be an issue can be an advantage to non-traditional job seekers (young or old for a specific position). If you want the opportunity to address your age, you can do so in any question asking you to describe yourself. For example, “Though I may not look like your typical candidate, I want to assure you that I am a serious candidate for this position. I feel that the life experiences I’ve had will enable me to relate to diverse patients over the many years I expect to be in this role.”
Though employers can ask if you are authorized to work in the U.S., they cannot ask your country of national origin or birthplace. They can also let you know whether they are willing to sponsor someone for a visa. If you are asked about your country of national origin or birthplace, you could respond addressing with, “I am authorized to work in the United States.” You may want to state if you’re a U.S. Citizen. If you are not authorized in the U.S. and an employer questions your country of national origin or birthplace, you can choose not to address that or ask them to explain how it is pertinent to the job. Keep in mind that they do not have to sponsor workers.
Asking about your family is not an illegal question; however, it is rarely relevant to the job and can create an atmosphere that makes an interviewee uncomfortable. Additionally, interviewees often volunteer information when responding to that line of questioning that provides interviewers with information that is protected under the law. If asked this question, it is your right not to volunteer this information.

You can address this by saying you prefer to keep your family and professional lives separate or that your family is a source of support and work life balance. You do not need to provide specifics though.

If you prefer not to offer information, you can say, “Though I prefer to keep my personal and professional lives separate, I want to assure you that I keep a good work-life balance that allows me to serve to my fullest when working.” You can also say, “Families play an important part in the overall well-being of individuals, as we see daily while working with patients. I am grateful for the support of my family.”

Asking whether you are married is illegal. However, employers seeking this information may also look for wedding rings. If you would prefer the employer not know your status, consider this when dressing for the interview. If asked your marital status, you can respond to the inquiry using the method described above.

It is not permissible for interviewers to ask questions about current pregnancies or future pregnancy plans. If you are not showing, the choice to disclose your pregnancy is yours; however, it is not recommended that you bring it up until a firm offer is extended. If the offer is rescinded at that point, you have grounds for a discrimination suit. If, however, you are showing, it may be more comfortable for you to address your pregnancy. Given that you are not eligible for the Family Medical Leave Act until you have been with an employer for one year, employers will not have to hold a job for you if you are hired and need time off in your first year of employment. For more information on pregnancy in the workplace, visit the Guide to Pregnancy Discrimination in Employment by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
Though employers can ask if you qualify for veteran’s preference, they cannot ask you for your discharge status. Should an employer inquire about military discharge status, you may choose to answer in a manner such as, “My military service has been completed. I appreciate the time I spent there and look forward to this next challenge.”
The decision to reveal sexual orientation in the job hunt is complicated and personal. Regardless of sexual orientation, including activity in causes impacting the LGBTQA community on your resume or discussing activity in these groups in an interview may lead employers to make assumptions about your sexual orientation. Those who have biases may react negatively.

If an employer would screen you out based on their perception (or knowledge should you choose to reveal) of your sexual orientation, would you want to work for that individual? If the answer is no, having them reveal their bias to you may benefit you. If the answer is that it would not impact your ability to work for the employer, you may choose not to reveal on your resume or in an interview. However, discriminating based on sexual orientation is never acceptable.
The decision when or if you should reveal a disability or genetic background is an individual one. However, if you will require accommodation to perform the job, you will need to reveal it to the employer at some point. Additionally, if your disability is physically apparent, taking the opportunity to address it yourself may provide you with a sense of greater control. What an employer needs to know and who at the worksite needs to know is case specific. For more information on how to address this topic, read Youth, Disclosure, and the Workplace Why, When, What, and How.
Typically, candidates avoid discussing religion (or politics) in interviews. However, if you choose to discuss it, or if your religion is evident from activities/experiences on your resume or by your dress or grooming, religion may still be a part of your interview. It is illegal for employers to ask questions about religion, but if the previous conditions exist, you may choose to address it. If you do so, be assertive that it will not be an issue in the work place. If you feel that you are being discriminated against, you can pursue a discrimination lawsuit.