Career Corner: The Illegal Question in the Room

Do you know about illegal job interview questions? – Courtesy photo

By Angela Copeland

The title of this column is a reference to the big elephant in the room. It’s that thing that everybody knows, but nobody is talking about. I’d like to talk about it a little today: illegal job interview questions.

Did you know that in 2018, people are still being asked illegal questions in job interviews? They are. It’s happening.

I’ve wondered how this could be the case. My best guess is this. Illegal questions seem obvious from the outside. Rarely do hiring managers get trained on how to properly interview candidates. Interviewing seems like something we should all know how to do if we’re hiring. Human resources folks know the illegal questions, but the questions seem so obvious that it probably seems pointless to review the questions with hiring managers. But, sadly, it seems we really need to. Interviewing isn’t a skill we’re all born with, and as hiring managers, we may not really think about what we should or shouldn’t say.

A few of the basics we should all avoid include: religion, pregnancy status, disability, age, citizenship, race, marital status, or number of children. In certain states and cities, it’s also illegal to ask how much money someone has made at a previous job. The elimination of these questions helps everyone to avoid discrimination. It also helps us to focus in on what we’re really there for: the job search. Can this candidate do the job?

If you haven’t been asked an illegal question before, I’m glad. I have personally been asked about whether or not I’m married, if I have children, if I plan to have any children soon, and how old I am. It sounds more like I was interviewing to go on a date than to get a job. Don’t you think?

If you’re asked something along these lines, it can be hard to know what to say. If you answer, you may be discriminated against and not hired. If you make a fuss and don’t answer, you definitely won’t be hired.

One interview coach shared with me that he likes to reply with something snappy. If a candidate is asked, “Do you have children?” he suggests responding with something like, “What I think you’re trying to ask is if I can do the job – and I’m totally up for it!”

While I do agree that this technique can be effective, there’s something bigger at play. Do you really want to work for someone who would ask you illegal questions? Do you want to work with someone who is judging you in this way?

I’ll be honest. When I’m asked illegal questions, I answer them. I answer them in a kind and friendly way. Then, I make a mental note about the question and about the hiring manager. I know that anyone who asks questions like this isn’t someone that I’d want to work for. So, my answer doesn’t really matter.

Angela Copeland, a career coach and founder of Copeland Coaching, can be reached at

September 12, 2018

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