The goal of any interview is to get to know you better and make sure that your background fits the company's needs. Every employer wants to fill the position with someone who fits well and has enough experience to do the job. And while interviews can become more personal as the conversation continues, certain questions should be avoided at all costs. Human resources departments are usually aware of illegal interview questions, but hiring managers and other employees who take part in screening job candidates aren't always well-trained interviewers. Here's a short list of some of the off-limits topics during an interview.
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1. How old are you? Some employers might ask this question because of general curiosity, but be careful because some companies may not want to hire outside a particular age range. This is age discrimination. Wanting to avoid hiring employees that are older than or younger than a certain age isn't permissible; as you can imagine, age shouldn't play a factor into your ability to perform a job. However, an employer can ask you to furnish proof of age if a certain age is a legal requirement upon hire.
2. Do you have any disabilities? First of all, if you have a disability, consider whether there is any advantage to disclosing it. If you have one that doesn't affect your ability to perform the job, you are not required to talk about it on an interview. According to Wanda E. Flowers, the president and owner of the HR consulting firm Wanda Flowers & Associates, employers should avoid the topic altogether: "Never inquire about an applicant’s disability or seek information that would result in the applicant revealing a disability, except as required to provide an accommodation to allow the applicant to complete the hiring process," she says. "For example, if applicants are tested for a position, they should be asked if they require an accommodation to complete the test. Otherwise, do not ask about a disability, even if it is a visible disability."
3. Do you plan to have children? Employers may be concerned that you will quit your job if you have children. But frankly, it's none of their business, and bringing it up violates the policies of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). There's no way to know whether a female would leave a job because she had a baby (and it's a gross assumption to think so), and employers shouldn't broach the subject at all.
Keep in mind, however, that an employer can ask you if you have any activities or commitments that may interfere with the work attendance requirements.
4. What's your sexual orientation? It may surprise you that this is even on the list. Clearly, some employers have brought up the question of sexual orientation, or there wouldn't be policies against it. But the only thing an employer needs to be concerned with is your ability to perform the job.
"If the hiring manager is starting to probe you about taboo topics, don't be afraid to (politely) tell them that you'd prefer to discuss the position, not irrelevant details," says Anthony Morrison, vice president of the career networking website Cachinko.
What You Might Reveal Without Being Asked
Even if you're not asked these topics directly, you might end up giving away more information than you intended in a job interview. Lynne Sarikas, director of the Career Center at Northeastern University's College of Business Administration, says, "Many interviews work hard to get the candidates to relax and open up. Some do it so effectively that they get the candidates talking and the candidates reveal more than they should without ever being asked. Nothing illegal is being done because the interviewer doesn't ask a forbidden question. Candidates can walk out of the interview amazed at how much they shared."
Measures You Can Take
If you are asked something that you shouldn't have been asked, you have the option of reporting the company to the EEOC. Know your rights, and visit the commission's website to see what is and isn't allowed exactly.
"Yes, a job seeker can report an employer for asking these types of questions—they are prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and enforced through the EEOC," says Linda Pophal, CEO and owner of Strategic Communications, a Wisconsin-based consulting firm.
Above all, you should be comfortable with the questions you are asked in a job interview. If you are not, it's probably a good sign that you shouldn't consider the company for your next step.
Lindsay Olson is a founding partner and public relations recruiter with Paradigm Staffing and Hoojobs, a niche job board for public relations, communications, and social media jobs. She blogs at LindsayOlson.com, where she discusses recruiting and job search issues.