When they ask the interview questions that they’re not supposed to….

What do you say?  A reader writes:

I’m on the job market this year. If I’m lucky enough to get interviews, I’m wondering if anyone has any advice about how to handle questions that people aren’t supposed to ask, such as if I’m married, if I have kids, if my husband would be willing to relocated, etc. I fell I can’t say it’s none of their business and still get a job offer. Is there a way to deflect these questions if they come up?

This is a really tough question.  Obviously one answer might be “that question is illegal” or “none of your damned business”.  But of course this may be unwise– either because you really need this job or because the person asking might be decent and good despite their cluelessness (I definitely know people like this).  What do you all think?

32 thoughts on “When they ask the interview questions that they’re not supposed to….

  1. I think that the best strategy for the candidate would be to be diplomatic. (Yes, I’m married and have children, but they live under the stairs in an overturned laundry basket that’s held down by a cinderblock. They’d never get in the way of my teaching or research.) If the comments in the discussion threads are any evidence, it seems people are obsessed with ‘fit’ and are willing to make all sorts of irrational decisions about who to hire and who to cut in the name of ‘fit’. Not answering these questions, lying, or telling people that it’s not appropriate to ask these questions in an interview setting is just the sort of thing that would lead to a low ‘fit’ score.

    I think that what we (i.e., those who aren’t interviewing this year) need to do is try to pre-empt this by annually bringing up issues having to do with standards for interviewing candidates and try to bang on about it the best we can. If only the new head of the APA had an outlet for discussing these issues online…

  2. I’m on my phone right now, but if someone is at their computer, I think it would be good to email her and ask her to say something. I think Clayton is right; we need to try and pre-empt this as much as possible.

  3. I have to say that my experience in Philosophy has been very positive on this front. As a junior candidate 20 years ago, I wasn’t asked any of these questions at the APA interview stage. (It gets trickier with on campus interviews because you’re spending social time with people who are talking about their families and it can feel weird not to take part.) I think at the APA stage, I’d assume the person asking was not the chair, a regular colleague maybe who ought to know better but didn’t, and I’d try to politely change the subject. I don’t know if that’s best but it’s what I’d do.

  4. Ouch!

    Having just been through 2 rounds of interviewing + 2 training courses, I would be shocked if a UK committee would let this slide. I would expect another committee member to jump up and down and say, “Wait wait! You can’t ask that.” So! Committee members! Don’t leave it up to the poor candidate.

    So, three options:

    1) Shading toward belligerence or perceived belligerence (“that question is illegal” may well be perceived as belligerent, “non or you damned business” is so, albeit appropriately).

    2) Shading toward the gracious or overgracious. “I would be happy to answer that question, but, as I understand matters, it’s not legal for you to ask that. I don’t want a technical error to cause problems with the procedure, so perhaps we should skip it?”

    3) Revenge is the best dish. Answer it and then write everything down. If you don’t get the job, file the complaint.

    I guess 3 should be in the mix, always. If someone’s asking an obviously forbidden question in this context, it doesn’t bode well for everything else being on the straight and narrow.

    Between 1 and 2, my natural inclination goes to 1, cause it really pisses me off. But 2 can get the threat of 3 in, plus show that you are easy to get alone with. 1 might fail harder for women because of the bias against assertive women.

  5. So long as the interviewer is asking all interviewees the same question, he is not breaching the Equalities Act and even if he was it would be impossible to prove. Under the Human Rights Act, the interviewer has a right to Freedom of Expression and you have a right not to be treated in an undignified manner. Even if he propositioned you and touched your knee, you would have difficulty proving your case against him (unless you had a willing witness). Your only options are: 1) tell him what you think, walk out of the interview in a huff; 2) tell him what you think in the most charming way and keep your fingers crossed; 3) lie through your teeth and hope that if and when he finds out that you lied, he doesn’t ask for your resignation; or 4) tell the truth and hope that you get the job. Let’s be fair, he might ask these questions because he has had one or more bad experiences with employees whose family commitments got in the way of their job. Perhaps you could ask him about this!

  6. I like to turn it back “Is that a pre-requisite for the position?” but then I didnt graduate from charm school either.

  7. It is very easy to use Google and find a range of sample answers for these questions. Your reader can pick and choose the most suitable ones.

  8. Bijan, I’m curious about the UK situation, because the “diversity” questions on jobs there are (I’ve found) _full_ of questions that it’s illegal to ask job applicants in the US- questions about who and how many people they have care-taker status over, their religion, their marital status, their sexual preferences and gender identity, and so on. I’ll admit to finding it pretty shocking. On the applications I’ve filled out, that information seems to be on the same form as the other application materials (though it’s hard to tell sometimes with electronic applications.) Is this material, asked for on the main application, then kept “secret” from the committees? If not, then many of the questions that are illegal in the US are asked of every applicant in the UK.

  9. Years ago I was interviewed for a job at a shitty little college devoted to student entertainment with a heavy course load by two superannuated old farts who asked me all the forbidden questions, prefacing each with a snarky, “Well, we aren’t supposed to ask you this but…” Finally they asked me if I were “analytic.” I said I was, and that I thought that non-analytic phenomenologicoHegelianexistentialist so-called “philosophy” was complete rubbish. Good-bye.

  10. This definitely happens and has happened to me (by a committee member in front of other committee members prefaced by, “I am not legally allowed to ask this, but…”). I think you could say something like, “I am not prepared to answer questions about my private life at this stage,” or something similar, without risking their displeasure. I answered the question because I felt compelled to. A route that I now take, but would not necessarily recommend, is that of making the information relatively easy to find. I do this because I hope that it will help me to find a good fit. Since this can easily backfire, I recommend practicing a non-answer. But both tactics are risky.

  11. I like Carolyn’s approach. I like to say something like, “I would prefer not to talk about my partner” (or personal life, or whatever), and change the subject. This approach at least makes clear that this topic is off-limits (and hopefully reminds the person of the legal issues involved), while avoiding the dreaded ‘you-statements’ that people tend to defensively understand as aggressive or mean, particularly when they’re made by women.

  12. In one job interview, I was asked illegal questions about my personal religious beliefs (it was a religious school, and no, it was not about whether I saw myself fitting in their philosophy or pedagogy, but bluntly, what my personal religious views were, because, as they said, they it would not do to have a naturalist on this position). The position was in general analytic philosophy. The question totally threw me off, and I was not prepared at all. I stammered something incoherent, and the rest of the interview went quite poorly and strained. I really wanted the job at the time, and blamed my lack of being prepared for a question like that for why the interview went badly.
    The point is: you have to be prepared for illegal questions, and keep in mind something along Carolyn’s response. As it was not the first time I got illegal questions (I got one on my marital status, followed by a question about my husband’s job situation. I handled that somewhat better, but still, it is very awkward) I think it would be good to practice illegal questions in job interviews. If we’re unprepared, we might just blow the interview. And bad as illegal questions are, the situation in the job market is such that we can’t afford to be picky.

  13. Matt – as I understand it, with the usual I-am-not-a-lawyer qualifications, these are the basic restrictions:

    1. Most data gathered on diversity questionnaires is sensitive personal data under the Data Protection Act 1998, so it shouldn’t be collected or processed without explicit consent. Any minimally decent employer should explain on the diversity questionnaire what the data will and won’t be used for (including whether it will be used for selection) and how it will be stored.

    2. In the public sector, those diversity questionnaires are intended to enable the employer to fulfil its obligations under the public sector equality duty (we’ve posted about that somewhere else, I think) which means collecting enough information to identify where discrimination might be taking place. So the information should help the employer to see whether, for instance, women do really well at getting shortlisted but hardly ever get offered the job. Where that’s the purpose of the form, it’s *supposed* to be detached – by someone not involved in shortlisting – before the form itself is passed to decision-makers: however, it’s not actually unlawful for the decision-makers to see the information, it’s just unlawful for them to treat someone less favourably because of it.

    3. The exception to this is the area of disability and health. Few employers seem to have realised this yet, but under section 60 of the Equality Act 2010 they can only ask about disability for very specific restricted reasons – see http://www.ecu.ac.uk/your-questions/pre-employment-health-questionnaires – so, for instance, application forms shouldn’t include standard, general questions about disability or sickness absences.

    As Bijan says, most large public sector employers require some level of training on these points before someone can sit on (or at least chair) a recruitment panel. But…

  14. Ok, I’m going to have to be a bit more careful.

    I suspect that it’s not illegal per se in the UK to ask such questions, however, uniform asking of such questions would not be a defence under the equality act. A standard, even if uniformly applied, which would disadvantage a member of a protected class relative to a member of another class is typically forbidden. (There are certain sorts of exceptions.)

    (Btw I think the freedom of expression stuff is wrong, busybeebuzz. I guess it’s not illegal for me to ask such question itself, but 1) I certainly could be fired for it as I might be fired for all sorts of utterances and 2) it could be part of a successful tribunal case against my employer under the Equality act.)

    I think the key is actual disadvantage. Intent definitely doesn’t matter (only effect). Asking questions about protected class features is going to look very bad both because it will typically have a greater negative effect on protected class members (e.g., women intending to get pregnant may well be made more uncomfortable systematically and thus perform worse than men; this would be grounds under the Equality act) and because it’s hard to see how that information wouldn’t be used (and using it for positive discrimination is likewise forbidden).

    After you’ve had an offer, the employer can ask about a lot of things, including disability issues, in order to determine what sort of accommodation might be necessary.

    There are situation where such things are deemed ok (e.g., health and safety trump).

  15. Anonymous,

    In one job interview, I was asked illegal questions about my personal religious beliefs (it was a religious school, and no, it was not about whether I saw myself fitting in their philosophy or pedagogy, but bluntly, what my personal religious views were, because, as they said, they it would not do to have a naturalist on this position).

    Ouch! Sorry to hear that. This would, as I understand it, be forbidden under the Equality Act. Not the saying per se, but the discrimination on religious grounds. (There are some exceptions for certain kinds of religious institutions, but if it were a university, I’d be surprised if that would fly.)

    The position was in general analytic philosophy. The question totally threw me off, and I was not prepared at all. I stammered something incoherent, and the rest of the interview went quite poorly and strained. I really wanted the job at the time, and blamed my lack of being prepared for a question like that for why the interview went badly.

    And this gets both parts. You were disadvantaged both because they simply wouldn’t give it to you and because their asking hurt your performance.

  16. The usual “I’m not a lawyer” caveats also apply to my comments below, but I want to mention that asking questions during job interviews about disability status in the U.S. is prohibited. Questions about how you will perform job duties are permitted — or at least that is what is stated on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website with regard to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    “If you are applying for a job, an employer cannot ask you if you are disabled or ask about the nature or severity of your disability. An employer can ask if you can perform the duties of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. An employer can also ask you to describe or to demonstrate how, with or without reasonable accommodation, you will perform the duties of the job.”

    More here. http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/ada18.html

  17. I’ve been asked, implicitly and explicitly, the sort of thing more times than I care to count. At this point, I don’t think I could actually be more ‘out’ than I am in the profession, but once upon a time…
    Fwiw, here’s my advice: do your best not to answer the question, and to address whatever might be an actual non-illegal thing/worry that might lie behind the question. So, for instance, responding to marital status questions with, “I’m fortunate in that I am easily able to relocate just about anywhere”. Then, again, just imho, the key thing to do is to change the topic to something philosophical as fast as humanly possible, so the jerk (jerk is gender neutral, isn’t it?) who posed the question doesn’t have a chance to follow up with infuriating also illegal query. E.g. immediately after remarking that one can relocate about anywhere, say, “You know, I’ve been thinking about this question that so-and-so asked at the APA…” or “I noticed that you work on….” Have at least half a dozen such topics in your pocket for each and every interview.
    ymmv, do the best you can with the situation, and try and remember that *they* are the jerk(s) for raising the question(s).

  18. Argh. That should read “in the U.S., asking questions during job interviews about disability status is prohibited.” Long day…

  19. The legality or illegality of questions hasn’t been posted about in a while, so long that some of us forgot anyone would wonder whether interview questions are legal or illegal. So I’m putting up a new, separate post about this.

    My short answer to the OP, though, is that I too have been asked such questions both directly and indirectly, and I found it least awkward to reply with a sympathetic turn-around-question of my own about that specific school, especially re: location: “From what I understand yours is a good location to relocate because of X (the peace and quiet, the city life, the river) — do you find it so, and is this the reason the students choose the school as well?” and to religion, “Interesting that you ask, because this reminds me that I notice from the school website that fully 50% of your students are Catholic — why is that, is this a formerly Catholic school, I wonder?” They are usually annoyed but diverted enough by the specific question about their school.

  20. Hi Bijan! Although your response to my freedom of expression comment is negative, I am very grateful for it because you are the 1st person to write a response to anything I’ve written on this site. Freedom of expression is a conditional right. Liberty writes:
    “Article 10 of the Human Rights Act safeguards the right to free expression, which includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without State interference. The right to free expression is, however, not absolute – it can be limited to protect the rights of others.“ Article 14 of the Human Rights Act requires there be no discrimination in the application of human rights on any ground. Liberty writes:
    “Discrimination occurs when a public authority, for no objective or reasonable reason:
     treats a person less favourably than others in similar situations on the basis of a particular characteristic;
     fails to treat people differently when they are in significantly different situations; or
     applies apparently neutral policies in a way that has a disproportionate impact on individuals or groups.
    It is not the case that all discrimination is unlawful. However for discriminatory law or treatment to be found to be lawful, weighty and objectively justifiable reasons must be advanced. “

  21. I’ll contribute my “overly sensible guy” strategy, which is more or less: “I’d be delighted to talk about personal life in another context, and I’m sure you meant nothing by it, but I’d feel uncomfortable towards other interviewees if I were to answer this question, because I think it can lead to implicit bias”. Then go address their real question – willingness to move, ideal employment length.

    Also, I don’t see the legality matter as being the main issue. Whether it’s legal or not, it can slight people unfairly, and therefore, it’s out of place.

    Of course, I’m a white guy, so people won’t expect my partner to change my mind, and the whole act might even look a bit magnanimous, but there might be recyclable material for everyone.

  22. There is one piece of advice that has not yet been offered, which is, simply, lie. Give them the answer they want (say you’re unmarried if you’re not wearing a ring, or say your husband is happy to re-locate, etc.). The interviewer has already placed himself in international waters by posing the question, so I’d say all bets are off at that point and no one can fault you for fabricating answers to illegal questions. If this were common practice then, perhaps, folks would recognize that all answers to such questions are epistemically valueless and quit asking them.

  23. Is it reasonable to turn the question around with another question, e.g., “Well, why do you ask?” Then you could provide whatever information you’re comfortable providing in response to, as Katy says, whatever real concern lies behind the illegal question.

  24. I, being a utilitarian, was about to propose that! I lied. I told people who were writing letters for me not to say anything that would indicate that I was married and didn’t wear my wedding ring at interviews. I certainly didn’t let anyone know that I had a 6 week old baby being baby sat at great expense in my hotel room.

  25. As an epileptic woman I have experienced more employment discrimination than many of you can imagine. Several employers have sacked me as soon as they found out that I’m epileptic and it’s a real hassle getting back on benefits. Whenever I spot a double tick job advert that specifies “must have a full driving licence”, I ring them up and point out why this discriminates against epileptics. The biggest lesson that I learnt was that the law is a fat lot of use unless you intend persuading an employer that you might use it against them. Unfortunately, litigation is too expensive for those who are not eligible for legal aid. When Sheffield City Council (SCC) breached the Data Protection Act and the Article 10 of the Human Rights Act I contacted the ICO who advised me to get back to them went I had gone through the complaints procedure with SCC. The ICO then agreed that I had a case which could be taken to court, but because there is no longer any legal aid for civil litigation no justice was done.

  26. Hi busybeebuzz,

    Although your response to my freedom of expression comment is negative, I am very grateful for it because you are the 1st person to write a response to anything I’ve written on this site.

    The honor is mine!

    The conditional right thing seems reasonable, but I was going for something slightly different. I would have thought that my employeer could restrict my expression rights in all sorts of ways by putting it into my contract (explicitly or implicitly). After all, I can be bound by an NDA (because I sign a contract).

    I think the situation might be a bit better in the states in that the EEOC will help people pursue cases. It seems really odd to have the Equality Act (which seems pretty good) but not real enforcement other than that paid for by people who are, on average, with less resource to enforce things. Grr.

  27. Hi Bijan!
    When the EEOC was set up by JFK, racism in the USA was so horrific that is hard for many UK citizens to imagine (particularly younger ones). In general, most employers will only restrict your freedom to express racist, sexist or homophobic beliefs or any verbal or written statements which disclose confidential information e.g. clients or students contact details. All of this is very reasonable. I cannot assume to know what line of work you are in, but in general NDAs don’t cause a problem unless you work at MI6 with James Bond 007. However, they might also have reasonable grounds to sack you if you said or did something to bring that company or public authority into disrepute e.g. Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP who was suspended after appearing on a reality TV programme or a school teacher who had also had a pole dancing job on the side. My freedom to express myself on this site is a “conditional right” which is not unreasonable because it protects the rights of others. If, for example I used swear words or wrote something racist, sexist or homophobic, I would expect my comment to be cut. I agree, it is really odd to have the Equality Act without means to enforce it, but the vast majority of the British public took no interest in joining campaigns to save legal aid from recent cuts. Many people couldn’t envisage circumstances under which they would need it and many people swallowed the Tories racist propaganda that it only helped immigrants and terrorists. Some medical negligence cases involving disabled children attracted media attention to Article 6 of the Human Rights Act (Right to a Fair Trial). The House of Lords have finally realised that withdrawing legal aid would breach Article 6. These parliamentarians can be a bit slow!

  28. one note about the ‘just lie’ strategy– unless one is very sure what answer they want, even on prudential grounds this could misfire. Sure, some people are carrying sexist baggage that leads them to presume that women married to men will not as readily relocate as women who are not married to men, and that’s the source of their ‘so, I don’t see a wedding ring…’ nonsense. Some of them, otoh, are trying to make sure they don’t hire one of ‘teh gays’, so lying and telling them you’re not married would just make it worse prudentially. In that light, I think I should add that when I suggested asking what *might* be the non-illegal question behind the illegal one, great emphasis should be put on might. In some of these situations, what one is doing is digging out a non-illegal question hidden behind the illegal one, but making it up–what the person asking you really wants to know is the illegal thing, because they really are exactly that much of a sexist, bigot, etc. And that, imho, just makes it all the more important to have those ‘change in topic to something philosophical’ options in your pocket.
    ymmv, of course.

  29. As a candidate I think it’s important to remember that you’re interviewing the department, too — particularly if you’re lucky enough to get a campus visit. So if you’re asked an illegal question, one option is to flip the illegal question back, to inquire about the preferences/status of the current members of the department.

    So, for example:

    Jerk: “If you were to be offered the job, would you have any issues with relocation of husband, children, or other significant family members?”

    You: “I wouldn’t be here [at the interview] if I didn’t think that moving was a realistic option! And of course I’m curious about what [this area] has to offer, and about the composition of the department. Are most of the faculty single or married? [Etc.]”

    [And then just keep pressing for more info about the faculty and express relief and a clear conviction that the answers are precisely what you needed to know that you’ll be a good fit.]


    Jerk: “Do you have kids?”

    You: “You mean young children? Hmm. Good question, but I’m curious: why do you ask? Do many of the faculty here have families/young children? Is [this area and this university] family-friendly, or is the assumption that you can’t have a successful academic career if you have caretaking responsibilities?”

    It’s probably also worth noting that grad students and administrative assistants don’t seem to be trained in the nuances of what can and cannot legally be asked. If you have an on-campus interview, these are the folks most likely to dig for background info — but you can typically shield yourself from questions in informal conversation by being friendly and taking the lead in asking questions, or keeping the conversation going so that you don’t encounter the sort of lacunae that tend to lead to inappropriate personal questions.

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