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Don't answer that: off-limits interview questions

Posted by Glassdoor Team

Career Advice Experts

Last Updated April 28, 2022

The questions you might be asked at a backyard barbecue are not the same questions you should be asked in a job interview — no matter how innocent they seem. 

What year did you graduate? 

When do you want to retire? 

Are you married? 

Do you have kids? 

These types of questions can come across as small talk, so you may not recognize that they’re red flags. While they’re all perfectly fine in a social situation, these are no-nos in an interview. The nature of these questions could be biased or discriminatory, and they have nothing to do with your skillset. 

So you don’t find yourself feeling awkward trying to respond to these types of questions, ready yourself with pre-planned responses that redirect the conversation.  

What’s off-limits? 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from asking questions about your age, gender, disability status, national origin, native language, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, or family  status.  Whether or not you own or rent your home and your debt history are also off-limits, as is your medical history. 

A prospective employer may ask if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime, but they cannot ask if you’ve ever been arrested. Under the American With Disabilities Act, they may not ask about your drinking or legal drug use.

In an increasing number of states and cities, prospective employers aren’t allowed to inquire about your salary history

Sometimes interviewers pose these questions in a roundabout way so pay close attention. Instead of directly asking, “How old are you?” the question might be, “I see you graduated from Howard. What year were you?” Instead of asking about your nationality, someone might inquire about where you grew up. If you recently moved to the area where you’re interviewing, they could ask if you had a hard time buying a home with the hot housing market, or if you had any trouble finding good schools as proxies for home ownership and family status, respectively.

You’re welcome to answer any questions if you’re comfortable doing so, but, you don’t have to, and the interviewer should not be asking about such topics. 

How to shift gears

Now you know that these questions are against the law and inappropriate, but knowing that doesn’t help you  pivot away from them in the moment. That takes practice. 

One way of handling this is to point out the  interviewer’s mistake in asking these questions. But, that could make the interviewer feel defensive and hurt your chances of getting an offer. Then again,  maybe you’ve made a decision to reject companies where their interviewers  veer into personal topics, and you’re ready to close this door. Yet, if you’re like most jobseekers, you  want as many offers as possible. Here are some tips on how to  shift the conversation.

Marital Status, Children, or Religious or Political Affiliations

For questions related to your marital status, children, or religious or political affiliations, Business Insider suggests a firm, but polite, "I try to keep business and personal matters like that separate. I don't think that my family life would ever affect my ability to do an excellent job here."  Similarly, when it comes to health or disability status, you could respond that you’re confident in your ability to meet the demands of the position.

Homeownership

For housing issues, deflecting and redirecting back to the interviewer typically works. “It’s been tough, right? I keep reading about people who have made offers on 10 or more homes! Have you moved recently?”

Age and Family 

As for the age-fishing questions? If an interviewer asks when you graduated from high school or college, roll out a friendly response that highlights your work experience. For example, “It feels like that was ages ago! I’ve already been working in accounting for 12 years.”

You might even get a question like, “You look familiar. Does your child go to Wilson Elementary?” That could either be a clever way of asking if you have kids, or the interviewer may have actually recognized you if you do have a child at the same school. If you want to evade the question, consider a response like, “People ask me questions like that all the time! I must have a twin I don’t know about.” (The same diversion can be  practical for questions about political and religious organizations.)

There’s also the more direct catch-all, “I don’t understand how that relates to this position, but I would love to provide you with more details about how my experience lines up with your needs for this opening.”

The art of redirecting

Regardless of the approach you choose, preparing and practicing tactful redirections before interviews can help you minimize awkwardness around those questions, should they arise. 

A good interview requires preparation, which includes studying sample interview questions through Glassdoor’s Careers portal and learning which questions you don’t have to answer. Mastering the art of redirection back to your qualifications and the job opening can help you avoid divulging information you would prefer not to share, while keeping the conversation cordial.

Wondering which questions are appropriate from an interviewer? Check out our guide to the interview questions you should be prepared to answer

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