Questions You Should Never Answer in a Job Interview

I find it distressing, and frankly unbelievable, that some adults, for whatever reason, do not understand the basics of the interview process. I don’t want to embarrass her, but one young woman (who appears to have lived in the US long enough to know better) actually asked the question on-line if it is normal for recruiters to ask for a candidate’s Social Security Number, date of birth, and full name.

There are legal questions. There are illegal questions. And there are crooks. Let’s deal with these in reverse order.

Crooks

The only time an employer needs to know a candidate’s Social Security Number is if they are going to do a background check on the candidate. The only reason to do a background check is as a condition of employment. The process is simple. The employer makes you a conditional offer of employment, dependent upon the results of a background check. (This should be after they have checked references.) At that point, if you want the job, you give them your Social Security Number on an authorization form. That’s for an employer.

As for recruiters, there is NEVER a reason to give a recruiter your Social Security Number unless the recruiter, representing the employer, is making the conditional offer of employment. Then you want the conditional offer of employment in writing, and a form authorizing the background check, clearly stating its purpose and that you will be informed of the results prior to any final determination being made so, and this has happened, any incorrect information can be addressed.

When filling out the form authorizing the background check, you will need to provide your full name and date of birth. Until then, neither the recruiter, nor the employer, needs to know when you were born. Which brings me to our next subject, illegal questions:

Illegal Questions

Any question dealing with a protected status is illegal. So, going back to your date of birth, you cannot be asked your age. You can be asked, for example on a job application form, when you graduated from college. Well, isn’t that revealing your age? You probably graduated when you were 22 so, do the math.

But that’s not necessarily so. Some people finish a four-year degree in three and some finish in five. And some (literally) graduate with one of their grandchildren. So the date of graduation does not mean much.

Where were you born? is an illegal question. The only legal question an employer or recruiter can ask in this regard is, Are you authorized to work in the United States? That’s it. But if you have a Spanish sounding name, received your undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Madrid, and note on your resume that you are fluent in Spanish, the assumption is going to be that your were born in Spain.

Who cares? The employer might. And it could be a good thing. Odds are, if the person is a bigot and does not like the Spanish, you would not have gotten anywhere in the process. So being of Spanish birth may mean that you have a Spanish, or rather EU, passport, which may appeal to the employer if she does business in the EU. So if a job responsibility is to travel to the EU, asking if that it a problem is perfectly legal. And if you reply that you have an EU passport, so much the better. That could be the difference between you getting the job and another candidate.

Do you have a disability? Illegal. The only question you can be asked is, Is there any reason why you cannot fulfill the requirements of the position? If there is, you have to tell the employer and if you need “a reasonable accommodation,” the employer must provide it.

What is your religion? Illegal except if it is relevant to the job. For example, a non-profit created to support persons of a particular faith can restrict the CEO position to a person of that faith.

The list is endless, so let’s look at the even longer list of legal questions.

Legal Questions

A legal question is anything that pertains directly to the job qualifications and responsibilities, and anything the pertains to your resume and possibly – check with an attorney – your LinkedIn profile. Discrepancies between the two may result in some questions. And, when it comes time to provide references, the employer may want to speak with those individuals who provided recommendations on your LinkedIn profile. (I did once which proved that the candidate less than honest…)

And that’s it for legal questions. But what about the big question?

What do you do when asked an illegal question in an interview?

How long have you been married? If it is on your resume, I can ask you about it. By the same token, if you provide me with information, I should be able to ask you about it. So, you come to me wearing a wedding ring, I should be able to ask you about your marriage. But, no, I can’t because marital status is a protected class. It’s not relevant for the job. So why would I ask you how long you have been married?

First, I’m ignorant. I don’t know the law.

Second, we are having a friendly conversation. I hire people I like. I want to like you. The only way I can like you is to get to know you, so I ask you about your family. In other words, I’m stupid.

Why would you want to work for someone who is ignorant or stupid or, to be fair, just really naive? How long is she going to stay in business? Eventually she’ll be sued and she’ll lose.

But, still, you need the job so what are your options.

First, answer the question. This may be a really stupid way to check your knowledge of HR law or just a really stupid question based on complete, total and honest ignorance of the process.

Second, if you are comfortable so doing, answer the question but immediately tell the interviewer that it is illegal and she could get into trouble. Then, tell her how to legally find out what she wants to know, if it’s possible. This may be appreciated and a bit feared. (This is what I have done in the past.)

Third, tell the interviewer that the question is illegal and you are uncomfortable answering it. This may be respected and a bit feared.

Remember, the interview process is a two-way street. You will learn a great deal about the corporate culture and decision making process from how the interview in conducted. Is an employer who lacks basic HR knowledge really the person for whom you want to work?

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Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter, career counselor and business advisor. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over a quarter of a million times and have garnered national and international media attention.  In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador. An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.

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