How to Handle These Awkward (Maybe Even Illegal) Interview Questions

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When you sit down for a job interview, you expect to answer some tough questions. What are your weaknesses? Why do you want to leave your current job? When is your baby due? Wait, that last one isn’t only difficult because the only thing in your belly is your mom’s famous Frito pie; it’s also completely illegal.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, there are several illegal job interview questions, as well as some that skirt the line of appropriateness. Employers are meant to stick to the EEOC’s rules but, unfortunately, don’t always. Interviewers might ask a question simply because they’re making small talk, but, sometimes, they do it in an attempt to gain information they shouldn’t have.

When you are on the receiving end of those hard interview questions, things can get awkward fast. But, what do you do? Flip the table over, scream, “How dare you bring that up!” and storm out? Sure, that works at Thanksgiving, but it could burn some important bridges professionally. By understanding what you should and shouldn’t be asked in an interview, you can better avoid an interview nightmare.

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The Question: Do You Have Kids? And, If So, Do You Have Someone to Watch Them?

If someone asks you if you have children or reliable child care, they could be trying to determine your commitment to the job, the flexibility of your schedule or something else entirely. Questions like this should never be asked, as they can be used to discriminate against working parents.

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How to Answer

Try asking a question to get the interview back on track. Something like, “I have a happy little family, including two border collies. Can you tell me how this relates to the position?” allows you to sidestep the irrelevant questions and put the ball back in the interviewer’s court. You can also, of course, say you prefer not to answer.

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The Question: What Year Did You Graduate High School?

Asking a person when they graduated high school might seem pretty harmless. Perhaps the interviewer and the job candidate realized they are from the same hometown and went to the same high school, and now the interviewer wants to know if they graduated in the same class. But, asking this question is also a way to figure out a person’s age — and use it against them.

If you say, for instance, you were in the graduating class of ‘72, the interviewer might do the math and think, “Sixty-five? There’s no way this guy will be able to learn PowerPoint. We need someone younger.” Similarly, if you say you graduated in 2012, the interviewer might suddenly think that, despite the experience on your resume, you are far too young for a management role.

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How to Answer

Human resources coordinator Sherri Borders has a master’s degree in human resource design. She said that if she were asked this question, she would reframe things by saying, “I have received multiple degrees since graduating high school. I can surely provide more information about my studies and how they have prepared me for this role.”

Not exactly a Ph.D. candidate? You can try saying something vague like, “In some ways, it feels like it was yesterday, but as you can tell from my resume, I’ve racked up quite a bit of experience since then.”

If you’re too uncomfortable, a simple, “I’d rather not say,” is completely fine, too.

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The Question: So, You Have a Criminal Record. What Did You Do Exactly?

Federal law dictates that an employer has the right to ask about your criminal history. However, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that an employer can’t use criminal history to discriminate against a person or group of people protected by Title VII (this includes race, national origin, color, religion and sex).

For example, two job candidates, one African American and one white, have identical work and education experience, and they apply for the same job at a company. The candidates have been convicted of and served time for identical felonies. It is OK for that employer to reject both candidates, but it is not OK for the employer to reject the African American candidate citing that he is “dangerous” or a “low-life criminal” but interview the white candidate with the rationale that “boys will be boys.”

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How to Answer

If you have a criminal history, you need to disclose it. Employers have the right to know who they are employing — even if you have changed and grown dramatically since your arrest or conviction. A person who served time for bank robbing is, understandably, going to have a hard time getting a job at a bank.

However, there are ways to answer the question tactfully to play up your achievements and goals. Instead of saying, “Well, my friends and I knocked over this liquor store because we were really drunk,” you might say, “I made the ill-advised decision to rob a store. It’s not something I am proud of, and I strive to put that incident behind me. I am a very ambitious, hardworking person, and I want to use my past mistakes to teach others about the importance of perseverance.”

Bonus: Try applying for jobs at companies that have taken the Fair Chance Pledge to “eliminate unnecessary hiring barriers for individuals with criminal records.”

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The Question: Will You Need Sundays Off?

“’Do you need Sundays off?’ could be a way to determine if an applicant belongs to a particular religion,” explained Stephany Debski, a recruiter at an educational nonprofit. Discrimination based on a person’s religion is illegal, so this is one of those leading questions that is skirting the line.

That said, an employer stating that your potential schedule would be Sunday through Thursday and asking if that is okay with you is not illegal, as it determines if you’re able to meet the requirements of the job.

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How to Answer

If you know that the job’s schedule is Monday through Friday, or otherwise excludes Sundays, being asked about this day is a red flag. Borders advised saying something like, “Can you let me know your scheduling expectations? I was under the impression this position worked regular hours, Monday through Friday?”

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The Question: Where Is That Accent From?

Though it could be asked in a friendly, conversational way, “’Where is that accent from?’ may be used to discriminate against immigrants,” said Debski. And, given the current political climate, job candidates might feel uncomfortable or even unsafe answering this question.


How to Answer

If you feel comfortable, you can certainly divulge where you or your family are from. If you feel uneasy, however, try something like, “I’m living in Los Angeles now, so you can consider me an Angelino! I’m so glad to live in a city with strong ties to the movie industry. That’s how I discovered this production assistant role.” Not only have you sidestepped revealing anything about your origins, but you have put the focus back on the job at hand. If that is too much of a rigmarole, you can state that you are uncomfortable answering.

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The Question: Have You Ever Filed For Bankruptcy?

The EEOC states, “Federal law does not prevent employers from asking about your financial information. But, the federal EEO laws do prohibit employers from illegally discriminating when using financial information to make employment decisions.” So, similar to a previous conviction, bankruptcy can’t be used to discriminate against you, but employers still have a right to ask about it if it is relevant to the job.

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How to Answer

If you have to answer the bankruptcy question because it is relevant, there is a way to positively reframe it. Instead of saying, “Yeah, the housing crash really screwed me over,” say something like, “Yes, unfortunately, my finances took a hit when the housing market crashed, as happened to many other Americans. I’m happy to say I am steadily recovering. I believe that the circumstances of that situation were unique and in no way speak to my abilities as a bank manager.”

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The Question: Do You Have Any Disabilities?

Asking if a candidate has a disability or the nature of an apparent disability is prohibited, according to the EEOC. That said, if related to the job, an employer can state the duties required, such as “standing for long periods of time,” or “carrying packages of up to 50 pounds,” and ask if the person is able to perform those functions.

If a job offer has been made, the company is also allowed to ask the candidate some limited questions about what kind of accommodation they might require due to a voluntarily disclosed disability.

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How to Answer

If confronted with this rather tactless question, “it can be uncomfortable and awkward, but it is important that candidates speak up for themselves so that they are given a fair evaluation of their work experience regardless of other unrelated factors,” said Debski.

You can either say that you are uncomfortable with the question and prefer not to answer, or you can ask the interviewer to restate the requirements of the job to determine whether or not you can meet them.

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The Question: Have You Ever Been Injured on the Job?

Asking if you’ve been injured on the job or filed a worker’s compensation form also falls under the protected “disabilities” category. Though it might seem like the interviewer just wants to ensure you are a safe, responsible worker, it’s also a not-so-subtle way to determine if you are litigious when hurt on the job.

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How to Answer

If you want to diffuse the situation with a joke, try something like, “Well, my ego took a painful hit when they introduced a computer program that could manage a calendar better than I could, but I recovered.” Should you want to play it straight, senior talent acquisition manager Kacey Hays said, “Let the interviewer know that you have always avoided hazards in the workplace and have always abided [by] safety standards.”

You can absolutely state that you’re uncomfortable answering the question, too.

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The Question: Are You Pregnant?

According to the EEOC, asking an applicant if they are pregnant or planning to become pregnant is against the law. However, that doesn’t stop employers from doing it. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and one of the most noteworthy women in business, admitted in her book “Lean In” that she asked at least one job candidate about her family plans, despite knowing that it was an interview question managers should steer clear of. “Managers are not supposed to factor childbearing plans into account in hiring or management decisions,” she wrote.

In Sandberg’s case, she received a positive response. However, not everyone will feel comfortable discussing their body and family with a stranger, and they really shouldn’t be asked to.

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How to Answer

“ … It is important for applicants to feel empowered to refuse to answer a question that they feel is inappropriate or makes them feel uncomfortable,” said Debski.

If asked if you are pregnant you could say something like, “Would a person expecting a child not have a bright future here?” to cast the light back on the interviewer — and subtly chide them. You can always choose not to answer the question, however.

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The Question: How Tall Are You and How Much Do You Weigh?

You would think that “How much do you weigh?” would be both an uncommon and blatantly illegal interview question, but there are certain jobs that are, unfortunately, dependent on your measurements. Models, for instance, must provide their height and weight when going on casting calls. Athletes, professional cheerleaders and entertainers often have to discuss their measurements. Even the person who wants to wear the Mickey Mouse costume at Disneyland has to disclose his or her height.

However, if the employer cannot “demonstrate how the need is related to the job, it may be viewed as illegal under federal law,” the EEOC said on its site.

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How to Answer

If the question has no relevance to your position, Borders recommended saying something like, “Can you provide further context? How is this relevant to the software engineering role I am applying to?” Stating that you’d prefer not to answer is also more than acceptable given the personal — and frankly, creepy — nature of the question.

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The Question: Are You Married?

Inquiring about marital status or, worse, the name and employment status of a spouse, is commonly used to discriminate against women, according to the EEOC. For this reason, these kinds of questions are only allowed — in a limited manner — after a job offer has been made; for instance, if the information is needed for insurance purposes.

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How to Answer

Unless you’re applying to be a contestant on “The Bachelor,” asking if you’re married is largely going to be irrelevant to your job. Try a snappy response like, “I’m married to the idea of succeeding in this industry.” Or, take Hays’ advice and use a straightforward response such as, “My personal life will not impact the hours or duties of this position.” If neither of those work for you, just politely state that you won’t be answering that question.

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The Takeaway

Now, it is all well and good to have a snappy, clever response to an inappropriate question, but it’s also important to feel empowered to say you are uncomfortable or that the question has no relevance. You can call off the interview at any time and walk away, too. You should never feel insulted or, worse, unsafe. What good is keeping professional contacts if they make you feel that way?

Bear in mind, as well, that if an employer talks to you, a job candidate, in this manner, they might say even more unethical things to actual employees. You don’t want to get stuck in a toxic work environment if you can help it.

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