Dealing with questionable job-interview questions

Everything’s going smoothly during a job interview. Then the interviewer hurls a curveball: a question that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or other laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

You’ll need to think on your feet if this happens, but you can make the task easier by doing some prep work. Consider the different ways you could respond–and which you prefer. Here are three options.

Sybil Pressprich is a senior career counselor who helps people facing a job loss.
Career counselor Sybil Pressprich: Many questionable questions involve race, ethnicity, religion, disabilities, or age.


Many questionable questions involve race, ethnicity, religion, disabilities, or age. Let’s say the interviewer asks what year you graduated from high school.

Take a moment to assess the situation. Why might this person be curious about your age? Perhaps she’s wondering if you’re mature enough to supervise others, or perhaps the company has a youthful image. Make an informed guess using the knowledge you’ve gained during the interview.

Then craft your response. If you think the interviewer is assessing your supervisory abilities, you could say something like “I’m getting to an age where I want more responsibility.” Or you could share your age, along with examples of your leadership skills.

If you think the company wants a younger employee to complement its image, explain why you’re a good fit for a young team or market. Maybe you’re plugged into emerging trends, or maybe your perspective provides a much-needed counterbalance.

Request that the interviewer rephrase.

The way you present this request depends on your personality and comfort level. You could note that the question violates the law. An interviewer who loves straight shooters may applaud your brazen honesty. Someone who prefers more finesse might feel the opposite. Either way, you run the risk of being branded “difficult.”

Sometimes you can reframe an illegal question as a legal one. For example, if the interviewer asks what your native language is, you could reply with “Are you wondering what languages I speak fluently?” Other times, a simple “Could you say that another way?” can elicit a more appropriate question.

Ask how the question is relevant to the job.

The way you phrase your question matters. Imagine that an interviewer asks if you have children. “What do kids have to do with this?” sounds harsher than “Help me understand how children relate to the position.”

If his question seems like code for “Will you stay late, even if your child has a soccer game?” you could say you’ll be available after hours. If the question seems like more of an icebreaker, you might let it slide.

In many cases, the interviewer is trying to make small talk and doesn’t realize he has crossed the line. Plus, some employers don’t know the law as well as they should.

Stay calm and keep an open mind if you’re dealt a questionable question. But do ask yourself if it has changed your opinion of the employer. Maybe the company is tone deaf, or not very respectful of differences. If the job isn’t right for you, how you answer matters much less.

Sybil Pressprich is a career and educational counselor in UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. sybil.pressprich@wisc.edu.

This article originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal.