Unethical Interview Questions

If a potential employer asks a question that you think is illegal, what should you do? Discriminatory questions are hard to define in many cases and proving discrimination (whether it be at the conscious or subconscious level) is very difficult. Here are a few areas that are considered unethical to discuss in an interview:

  • religion
  • ancestry
  • age
  • number of dependents
  • credit rating
  • spouse's occupation
  • language you speak at home
  • political affiliation
  • birthplace
  • national origin
  • marital status
  • age of children
  • sexual orientation

A good general rule: if the question does not relate to your ability to do the job, it may be unethical. When you’re confronted with an improper question, you have three choices:

  1. You can refuse to answer, and tell the employer you think the question is improper. You may feel better, but you will probably be back on the street continuing your job search.
  2. You can answer the question and swallow your pride (and your privacy). You may not feel great, but you are still in the running.
  3. You can answer the legitimate concern that probably lies behind the improper question while ignoring the exact question. For example:

    Q. "Do you plan to have any children?"
    A. "I plan to pursue a career whether or not I decide to raise a family." or "I have that taken care of and I don't anticipate any absences from the job."

Possible Underlying Assumption: The employer had a genuine concern about how long a potential employee may remain on the job or that extended periods of leave may be required.

It is important for you to decide (before starting an interview) just how sensitive you are to some prohibited topics. You should decide ahead how you intend to handle these topics and whether or not you will answer questions that may be illegal. The interview is not the place to decide. The following tips may help you to prepare:

  • Make a list of sensitive questions you may be asked.
  • Determine ahead of time which of the three approaches discussed above you will use.
  • Rehearse different ways of answering so that your reply will come out smoothly and naturally.
  • Practice, practice, practice. The more interviewing situations you go through (real or "practice" interviews), the better you'll get and the more comfortable you'll become.

Despite all attempts to limit illegal and unethical questioning and discriminatory behavior, you may still encounter an interviewer who will ask improper questions. Remember, it is a matter of degree – some improper questions are intentional, some are not; some interviewers know what they are doing, others may not. You have the right to say, “That’s an illegal question and I refuse to answer.” By doing so, you may win the battle (but you’ll probably lose the war). One way to handle these types of questions is to ask the interviewer why they need that information. Consider the above strategies, prepare yourself to answer sensitive questions and give answers that get to the underlying concern, and the interview should go smoothly.

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