How to Answer Illegal Questions

I am not certain why, but of late I have been asked more than usual, “What should I do if the employer asks me an illegal question?”

First, what is an illegal question?  It’s anything of a personal nature that does not pertain directly to the job.  For example, “Are you disabled?” is an illegal question.  “Can you fulfill the requirements of the job?” is perfectly legal.  If the person responds, “Yes, but..” then things get interesting.

Let’s say you have a bad back and can’t stand for long periods of time. You are applying for a job that requires you to be on your feet.  The employer is required, by law, to make “reasonable accommodations” for you.  So you might say, “I have back problems.  I can’t stand for more than 10-15 minutes at a time.  But if you can put a bar stool with a back behind the counter, I’ll be fine.”  That’s a “reasonable accommodation” and the employer should have no problems.

But let’s say the job requires you to lift, continually, heavy packages.  You are applying for a warehouse position.  It’s a confined space and you can’t use a forklift to take packages down from shelves, although you will have a cart to move them on.  It would not be a “reasonable accommodation” for the employer to remodel his warehouse so that you could use a forklift.

That’s the difference between a legal and an illegal question.  The illegal question focuses on the candidate; the legal question focuses on the job.

So how do you answer?

My advice, and I am not an attorney, is to say, after you are asked, “Are you disabled?” “First, that’s an illegal question and you can get into a lot of trouble asking it.  But I understand why you are asking.  You want to know if there is any reason why I cannot fulfill the requirements of the job.  So let me assure you that I can.”  Or, if you need a “reasonable accommodation” explain it.

What have you done?  You have answered the question and educated the employer.

But here’s a question for you:  How long do you think an employer who does not know the basics of interviewing will stay in business?  Do you really want to work for someone like that?

Something to consider.


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