'What Do You Think of Jesus?' and Other Illegal Interview Questions and How to Handle Them

August 5, 2015
"So, do you have kids?"

"How old are you?"

"That's an unusual name. Where are you from?"

Wait! Don't answer yet.

Calling these questions illegal is a little bit dramatic/semantic, but there are some things you should know before heading into an interview. "One thing to remember is that the questions themselves usually aren't illegal -- discriminating against the applicant based on the answer is, and usually the fact that the question is asked is an indicator of an intent to discriminate," says Nicole Grunfeld, senior associate at Katz Melinger PLLC, who has been practicing employment law for 7+ years.

Federal-level protected classes -- things potential employers cannot directly ask you about in an interview -- include race, color, religion, sex, and national origin (under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964); physical disability (Americans With Disabilities Act); age (Age Discrimination in Employment Act); pregnancy (Pregnancy Discrimination Act), and genetic information (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008).

So what do you do when you're faced with questions like, "Do you think you'll be able to work with or take direction from co-workers who are significantly younger than you?"; "How long have you been married?"; "What do you think of Jesus?"; and "Have you ever had any serious illness?" (All true stories via Grunfeld.) "Strategies and responses are very context-dependent," she says. Here are a few to consider.


At the end of the day, what should matter most to your potential employer is whether or not you can do the job, so if you can tell what the question is getting at, you can reiterate your qualifications, commitment, and interest in the work. "I work best as part of a cohesive team, and cultivating a good rapport with my co-workers is really important to me; I welcome any feedback that can help me improve my performance," might be a good way to answer the above question about your ability to take direction from younger co-workers.


"Someone who is visibly pregnant may want to address the situation head on and explain why the pregnancy isn't a liability," says Grunfeld. She chose the direct route herself when interviewing after her daughter was born: "I actually didn't look until she she was over a year old, and then I made it part of my story, that I'd been working for myself [freelancing] as I tended to family responsibilities, and was now ready to go back into the regular workforce."


Grunfeld suggests that depending on rapport, you can try to deflect with humor, respond by saying, "That's an interesting question; why do you ask?", or simply respond that you don't feel comfortable answering. She notes, "Unfortunately, there's no fool-proof strategy."


And if all else fails, she says, you can answer truthfully, and if you don't get the job and feel that you were passed over due to the employer's discrimination, you can consult a lawyer. Know that it can be very difficult to prove discriminatory intent, so this strategy should be a last resort.

What else?

As part of your interview preparation, we recommend checking out FindLaw's Guide to Hiring; Grunfeld also recommends familiarizing yourself with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's guidelines.

Finally, she notes, there are lots of state and city laws providing job applicants with protection; these may be different than federal laws, so just be aware.

And go get that job!

This article originally appeared on Savvy.

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