Illegal Interview Questions

Eventually it happens to just about everyone.  You are in an interview and the interviewer asks a blatantly illegal question.  One recruiter I used to work with, who was in a position of authority, was constantly asking candidates if they were married, had children and how old they were.  Amazingly, the candidates all answered the questions and the recruiter is still in business today.

What should you do when you are asked an illegal question?  If you are desperate for a job, answer it.  If you don’t get the job, at least you’ll have grounds for a law suit.  (I am only half joking!)  But in all seriousness, consider what the interviewer is really asking.

“Are you married?” may mean, “We are looking for someone who will be able to play a social role in the community.”  “Do you have any children?” could be a question about your ability to work late hours.  “How old are you?” is just plain stupid!

So, are you married?  Well, I know you would never ask a blatantly illegal question, and I can promise you if I am ever interviewing someone that will never happen, so let me answer you this way:  If you want to know whether or not I have family values, I do.  If you want to know if work or family will be a priority for me, I am excellent at balancing my professional and personal lives.  When you check my references you will find that this has never been an issue.

The response to “Do you have any children?” would be basically the same.

Of course, why would you want to work for someone so stupid as to ask blatantly illegal questions?  Of course, depending on the context, the question may not be illegal.

A colleague was once working on a search for a director of Communications for an orthodox Jewish university.  Logic dictated that candidates had to be (a) Jewish and (b) orthodox otherwise they would not be able to understand the subject matter.  And while, theoretically, anyone can learn Jewish laws, traditions and customs, the learning curve would make it impractical for a gentile or non-orthodox Jew to be hired.

The finalist who my colleague submitted was a nice Christian gentleman who had written a major research project on a very well-known and highly regarded rabbinic scholar.  This guy knew more about Jewish law, traditions and customs than the vast majority of Jews – including probably some orthodox Jews.  If memory serves, they offered him the job but he turned them down!

So how would you ask candidates if they were orthodox?  You wouldn’t.  That would be illegal.  Ask them if they would be comfortable in an orthodox setting.  Those who indicate that they would have difficulty, would realize that the job would not be for them.  If the person believed he would have no difficulty, that would open the door to a discussion about how the organization/company’s staff and clientele would react to their being hired if they were not themselves orthodox.  In all the cases I can remember, in those circumstances, when the candidate was not orthodox or Jewish, they withdrew.

For the record, the same was true of orthodox Jews who were applying for positions at secular organizations.  The best example was orthodox women who refuse, because of their beliefs, to shake hands with men.  If they would not shake my hand, I’m not orthodox, I would have a discussion with them about how they would fit in to the organization’s culture.  They realized that it would simply not work.

One question that comes up all the time is whether or not a person is legally in the country.  (I refuse to use the term “illegal immigrant.”  There are no “illegal immigrants.”  If you are an immigrant, then by definition you are legal.  If you are in the country illegally, you are a criminal.)  By law, you can’t ask a person where they were born, but if they indicate that they or their parents are from a foreign country, it is perfectly lawful to ask them if they have a permit to work in the country.

The next time you are asked an illegal question by an interviewer ask yourself the following questions:  Is this guy really this stupid or is he just pretending?  If he is really this stupid do I want to work for him, with him, or for a company that would have him as an employee?  If he is pretending, then what is it that he really wants to know?  Act accordingly, but always politely.  You’ll never know when you will meet him again!

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