How to Handle Illegal and Inappropriate Interview Questions

Some questions should be better left unasked.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

How to handle illegal or inappropriate interview questions

You’re interviewing for the job of your dreams — and you’re smashing it! You’ve seamlessly answered all the hiring manager’s difficult questions and you’re actually hitting it off. They just might be the best boss ever (provided you get the job, of course)!

But then they hit you out of nowhere with a completely inappropriate question like “Are you pregnant, or do you plan on getting pregnant in the near future?”

While it’s definitely none of their business, questions like this sadly get asked way too often in job interviews across the board. And they just might be illegal, too.

So, to help you determine whether a question you’re asked is done so illegally, we’ve compiled a list of the most common illegal interview questions to look out for, along with tips on how to tackle them head on!

How do I know if a question is inappropriate or illegal?

A good rule of thumb when determining if a question is inappropriate or illegal would be not only if it crosses the lines of what the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC recommends employers shouldn’t be asked when hiring, but also how you process the question. If you find yourself thinking something like “If I answer that I do want kids in the future, maybe they won’t hire me for fear of maternity leave, so I’ll just say no for now”, then the question shouldn’t be asked.

If a question zeroes in on age, gender preference, sexual orientation, country of origin, disability or health status, religion, or marital status, you can chalk it up to an inappropriate or illegal. While you want to be asked questions focused on diversity and inclusion, they shouldn’t cross a line.

The only questions you should be asked in an interview are those about your ability to perform the duties of the role you’re interviewing for. While interviewers will ask personality questions to see if you’re a cultural fit or just to get to know the person behind the job, they should never cross the line into discriminatory or otherwise inappropriate questions.

How do I respond?

While they shouldn’t be asked, we can’t prevent you from getting bombarded with some inappropriate or illegal interview questions. But what we can do is help you prepare to deal with them. Let’s go over some ways you can respond when you’re faced with these types of questions.

1. Maintain a professional tone

Most importantly, stay professional. While your interviewer may have crossed a line, you don’t have to stoop down to their level and do the same. Stay calm and professional, no matter what. Whichever route you choose to take, none of them will matter if you don’t maintain a professional tone first and foremost.

2. Answer the question briefly

One route to take is to just answer the question. You know it’s inappropriate, and maybe even your interviewer knows it too, but you answer it anyway.

They may have tried to hide it by asking something like: “Do you believe you can still perform the duties of your job, even though you’re 55?” They made the question feel relevant to your job, and you find yourself thinking this has got to be the hardest interview question ever.

Remember: it feels that way most likely because it’s inappropriate. Nevertheless, one way to respond is to calmly answer the question with a simple answer. Don’t play into their hand; in this situation, a simple “yes” will suffice — then move on.

3. Politely decline to answer

If you’re not comfortable answering the question, feel free to decline to answer.

Let’s say they ask you: “Do you need Sundays off to attend church?”. While somewhere in that discriminatory, inappropriate, and illegal question they are asking about scheduling because they are aware of your employee rights, you can still simply respond with: ‘I choose not to answer the question”.

The interviewer at this point should recognize the error of their ways and move on, but if they don’t, you still don’t have to answer the question.

4. Steer the conversation

If you’re not comfortable doing either of the previous options, then it’s time to steer the conversation elsewhere.

For example, they ask you: “I notice an accent. What country are you from?” Your response would then be something like: “While my professional career has allowed me the ability to move around a bit, I’m excited about the opportunity to work with your organization and find a home within a company.”

You’re not blatantly calling the interviewer out for racism and you’re not answering the question, but you’re instead steering the conversation to a new topic altogether.

5. Call it out

Let’s face it: no matter what you do, at the end of the day, you may just have to call it as you see it and move on with your life. If the interviewer comes out and asks if you’re married, that’s a great time to respond with something like: “I’m sorry, I’m not comfortable answering that question, as I find it is not relevant to the job I’m applying for”. Alternatively, you could bluntly ask them: “How is that relevant to the job I’m applying for?”

At that point, you’ll have to evaluate if you’re comfortable working for an organization with such blatant disrespect in the interview process, but all in all, at least you handled yourself well, despite it all!

Gender-based questions

Many employers tread a thin line when they ask gender-based questions, hoping that they’ll get away with it. Sometimes, they do this innocently as a way of getting to know you better, but other times it could simply mean that they have a hidden agenda. And that’s finding out if you have any commitments that will affect your life.

Examples include:

  • As a single mom, what childcare arrangements have you made?
  • When are you planning to have children?
  • What does your husband/wife do?
  • Are you comfortable working for a female boss?

If you do get asked one of these questions, or something similar, you could either be honest in your answer or you could avoid it altogether, and instead focus your response more on your skills and how they make you suitable for the role.

For example, if you’re asked about how comfortable you are working for a female boss, you could respond by saying something like: “I am comfortable in any role. In my previous job, I exceeded my sales expectations three years in a row.”

Marital and family status-based questions

There are a number of companies that view married employees as more loyal and committed to their jobs, due to the level of commitment they demonstrate in their personal lives. And there are others whose company culture prefers young and single employees who like to party, socialize and generally spend every waking minute with their colleagues.

And in an effort to determine what type of person you are and whether you’re a good fit, they’ll ask you all sorts of illegal questions about your marital and family status, such as:

  • Are you married?
  • Do you have children?
  • Do you plan to get married/have children?
  • Are you divorced?

An appropriate answer to a question like this is: “I’m not quite there yet, as I’ve been so focused on advancing in my career. So, I’m really interested to hear about the opportunities for advancement in your company and how I can progress if I’m successful.”

Citizenship and nationality-based questions

Although these types of questions are necessary to find out if you’re legally allowed to work in the country you’re applying for a job in, there are certain ways of phrasing it, and the below examples aren’t one of them:

  • Where are you from?
  • Where were you born?
  • What country are you from?
  • Are you a US citizen?
  • You have a strong accent. Where does it come from?

If you believe the interviewer is asking you where you’re from as a way to break the ice, you could volunteer that information and even ask “How about you?” If, on the other hand, you fear that they’re being prejudiced, you could say something like: “I’m legally allowed to work in the US, if that’s what you’re asking”.

Age-based questions

These types of questions are used to determine whether you’ll be a good culture fit based on your age or if you have the experience that’s required. For example, some companies prefer to hire older, more experienced workers, while others lean towards graduates who will accept a lower salary.

Examples of illegal age-based questions include:

  • How old are you?
  • What year were you born?
  • When did you complete high school?
  • How long do you plan to work until you retire?

If you want to dodge the question, you could say something like: “Although I am young at age, I have the experience you are seeking, which can be seen throughout my work history”. You can then use specific examples to back up your statement.

Religion-based questions

A hiring manager will tend to ask religion-based questions to determine what your working schedule could be and whether your faith will interfere with your duties.

Examples include:

  • What religious holidays do you observe?
  • Do you go to church on Sunday mornings?
  • Which religion do you practice?
  • Will you need personal time off for particular religious holidays?

The best way to answer such questions is to simply explain that your religion will in no way obstruct your work schedule.

Health-based questions

If you’re interviewing for a physically demanding job, it’s only natural that the employer will ask about your physical abilities. But anything that’s not related to the skills required for the job is, quite frankly, none of their business.

Examples of illegal health-based questions include:

  • How is your health?
  • Have you experienced any serious illnesses in the past year?
  • Do you have any mental or physical disabilities?
  • Are you on any medication?

A one-word answer is acceptable if you’re ever asked such questions.

Arrest/Criminal record-based questions

Although asking about past convictions is legal, questions that beat around the bush aren’t. This includes questions like:

  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • Have you been caught drunk driving before?
  • Have you ever spent a night in jail?

If you have nothing to hide, you can easily answer such questions as honestly as possible or simply tell the hiring manager that you’ll happily give them permission to perform a background check. This should put them at ease to let them know that you won’t be causing any trouble.

Smoking habits-based questions

These questions are asked to determine what your current lifestyle choices are and to see if they would interfere with your workday. These include:

  • Do you smoke?
  • Would you need to go out for smoke breaks throughout the day?

However, smoking in the workplace should not be frowned upon, and any rules regarding these habits will be outlined in the employee manual. And remember: you have every right to politely ask what this question has to do with the job if you feel comfortable doing so.

Location-based questions

Nine times out of ten, a candidate’s location will be listed on their carefully written résumé, which will avoid this question altogether. However, if you do happen to get asked about where you live, it’s because the employer is trying to determine whether the commute will be too long for you.

Examples include:

  • Where do you live?
  • Who do you live with?

You can reassure them in your response that you don’t mind a long commute and that you’re no stranger to it, or tell them about your relocation plans if you successfully pass your probation period.

Personal questions

Unless you’re a model or you’re applying to operate any heavy machinery, you shouldn’t be asked about anything personal. This includes:

  • Do you enjoy a social drink?
  • How much do you weigh?
  • How tall are you?
  • What is your political affiliation?

If you find the question to be too inquisitive, you can ask what its relevance is to the position; alternatively, you could choose to give a brief answer. Just be sure to do it in a polite manner so that you don’t create a hostile environment!

Final thoughts

Many times, hiring managers don’t realize that the questions they ask are illegal, and they simply do it to try to get to know you on a more personal level. When there’s no ill intent behind such questions, you should consider the context that it was asked in, and then decide on how to answer. You just need to be sure that your answers won’t hurt your chances of getting the position if it’s your ideal job.

If, on the other hand, you feel like you’re being discriminated against, you should consider whether they’re actually someone you would want to work for, anyway.

What crazy questions have you been asked in past interviews? Join in on the conversation below to let us know what they are and how you responded to them…


Originally published on June 5, 2018. Updated by Shalie Reich.