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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.
Examples: What is your skin color? What is your race?
Is your spouse Caucasian/Hispanic/African American/Asian,
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.
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.
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).
Examples: Do you go to church? Are you religious? What
religion are you? Do you take time off work for religious
Exceptions: Organizations that have a specific religious
orientation might ask questions relevant to religious
practices and beliefs.
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.
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.
about Sexual Orientation and Political Affiliation
Executive Order 13087 acts as a guideline against sexual
discrimination or party discrimination in the federal
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
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
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
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