Is That Interview Question Legal?

Here's some advice on handling interview questions about your family, religion, race, and more.

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Alison Green
You’re sitting in a job interview and your interviewer asks you:

“So, do you have children?”

“What church do you go to?”

“What an unusual last name. Is it Japanese?”

Interviewers aren’t supposed to ask these sorts of questions. But what do you do when one asks anyway?

First, let’s get the law out of the way. There’s a widespread belief that these questions are downright illegal, which isn’t quite right. What’s illegal, at least in most states, is rejecting you based on your answers, because it’s illegal for an employer to make a hiring decision based on your marital status, race, religion, gender, pregnancy or likelihood of getting pregnant, whether or not you have children, or other legally protected classes.

(There’s one exception to this rule: when it comes to questions about disabilities. Employers aren’t allowed to ask about disabilities at all, although they are allowed to ask whether you can perform the essential functions of the position with or without reasonable accommodation.)

[See How to Rock Your Next Job Interview.]

But regardless of the technicalities of the law, smart interviewers—or interviewers who have spoken with a lawyer—don’t ask these types of questions. The answers shouldn’t be relevant to your ability to do the job, and they can’t consider them anyway. Plus, since so many people think the questions themselves are illegal, it’s a good way to make a candidate uncomfortable.

But not every hiring manager is a good interviewer. So what do you do if you’re asked one of these questions in an interview?

Well, you could launch into a spiel about employment law, but doing that probably isn’t going to endear you to the interviewer. Here are two other options you can try:

1. Figure out what the question is getting at, and answer that instead. For instance, if you think an interviewer is concerned that you’ll leave the job when your spouse gets transferred, speak directly to that: “I can commit to the job for at least several years.” If you think the interviewer is concerned that parenthood will get in the way of your job performance, say something like, “There’s nothing that would interfere with my ability to work the necessary hours and get the job done.”

[See What to Consider Before Accepting a Job Offer.]

2. Turn the question back around, by pleasantly saying something like, “That’s a different question. I’ve never been asked that before in an interview. Why do you ask?” In this situation, the interviewer is likely to either let it drop and move on, or explain why she asked, which opens the door for you to more easily use the first strategy.

It’s also worth noting that usually when an interviewer asks one of these questions, it’s not because they’re trying to screen you out on illegal grounds, but rather because they’re trying to be friendly and don’t realize that they’re on risky ground. It’s certainly your prerogative to make an issue out of it, but on a practical level, you need to decide if it’s a battle you want to fight. If the interviewer merely intended to be friendly, you may not want to throw cold water those efforts.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.