Questions you don’t have to answer in a job interview

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We prepare to answer even the toughest questions before a job interview. But what if you’re faced with a question you shouldn’t answer? Are you prepared to handle it without jeopardizing your chances of being hired?

What questions can’t employers ask?

In general, questions that have no relation to your skills and experience should make you suspicious. But when questions touch on characteristics that are protective grounds for discrimination, they may be considered illegal. These characteristics include (based on the Manitoba Human Rights Code):

  1. Race, place of origin, nationality or ethnic origin
  2. Religion
  3. Gender identity
  4. Sexual orientation
  5. Age
  6. Marital and family status
  7. Disability
  8. Social disadvantage
  9. Political belief or political activity

Hiring managers should not base their hiring decisions on these characteristics. Here are examples of illegal questions:

  • What is your race or place of origin?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married? How many kids do you have?
  • Are you thinking of getting pregnant?
  • What is your sexual orientation?
  • What is your financial situation?

How to identify and answer illegal job interview questions, Job Hunt Solutions

How to deal with illegal questions:

First of all, you have the right to refuse to answer any question that makes you feel uncomfortable. You can be honest and politely say that you would rather not answer. However, it is in your best interest to handle the situation gracefully. Here are some tips:

  1. Keep an open mind

    Most employers won’t ask illegal questions. So when it happens, it is possible that it may not be deliberate. For example, if the interviewer asks “How was your weekend? Did you spend it with your kids?” The intention might be to start on a lighter note and create rapport with you. Don’t assume immediately that it’s a way to know if you have children. It is also possible that the interviewer is inexperienced. It could be an honest mistake.

  2. Don’t be defensive

    Stay professional. Bring the conversation back to the purpose of the meeting, which is to assess your ability to do the job. Here’s an example: If the interviewer asks you “When did you graduate?” in an effort to know your age, you can say, “Oh, it seems so long ago! But if you are concerned about my age in relation to fitting in with the team, I can tell you that I have worked with very diverse teams in the past without any issues. I am adaptable and comfortable working with all ages. I respect the expertise and knowledge of my co-workers and superiors regardless of age.”

  3. Ask a clarifying question

    This is a subtle way of knowing the interviewer’s intention. You are also sending the signal that you are aware of your rights. You can say something like “I’d be happy to answer that question, but I’d like to understand a bit more about how it’s relevant to the job. Could you please elaborate on that?” (J.T. O’Donnell, Work It Daily). Keep your tone light when asking the question. The way the employer reacts and answers will reveal a lot about the company’s culture.

  4. Answer but make them aware of the mistake

    You can answer the question but you should let them know that they are crossing the line. For example, if the interviewer asks: “Are you married?” You can say: “I am married but my status will in no way prevent me from fulfilling my responsibilities and doing my job to the best of my abilities.” It’s a subtle hint to the interviewer to concentrate on your capabilities and not your status.

If the employer continues to ask illegal questions despite your subtle signals, you should decide whether this kind of behavior is ok with you or not. Remember that you are also assessing the employer. It could mean that the company is not a good fit for you and you might be better off working somewhere else.
Article updated May 13, 2020.
Sources: 6 job interview questions potential employers are not allowed to ask – and how to handle them, Dani-Elle Dube, Global News; What to do when you’re asked an illegal interview question, J.T. O’Donnell, Work it Daily; and Human rights considerations in hiring, The Manitoba Human Rights Commission. Accessed July 18, 2019.

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