Sadly, illegal interview questions are a lot more common these days than we'd like them to be. If you don't know how to answer them properly, you could miss out on a good job opportunity.


In order to avoid getting flustered, I'm going to show you how to handle illegal interview questions.

1. Ask A "Clarifying" Question

Job candidate debates answering an illegal interview question

My first piece of advice is to ask a "clarifying" question. Instead of jumping in on the attack and making assumptions that this person knows they're asking something illegal, you might want to get a little bit more information as to why they're even asking this question in the first place.

I might say something like, "I'd be happy to answer that question, but I'd like to understand a little bit more about how it's relevant to the job." That way, they have to clarify for you the intention of the question.

This is going to help you understand whether or not they know it's illegal. At this point, you can either choose to answer the question (because you know it was innocent) or maybe say, "You know, I hate to say this, but that is technically an illegal interview question and I'd really prefer not to answer."

It's totally your choice. But now, you've at least got something to work with, so that you have a reason to give your response in either direction.

2. Adopt The "Two Strike" Rule

Professional man handles an illegal interview question

My second piece of advice is to consider adopting what I call the "two strike" rule. The first strike would be if they asked a question that was illegal, and you decided to answer it. Of course, you clarified why they were asking this question in the first place. Anytime you ask a clarifying question, it is sending a subtle message to the hiring manager.

That first time around is their first chance. But if they ask a second time, that's when it's a second strike. That's when I would go ahead and say, "You know, this is the second illegal interview question that you've asked, and I'm really getting uncomfortable answering them."

By doing this, you're showing them that you did give them a chance, and you were polite in that first response as well. You may even have to clarify for them why the question was illegal, so you should be prepared to do that, too.

Be ready on that second strike to say, "This is really hard for me to share with you, but that is technically an illegal interview question, and I'd really be more comfortable not answering it." If you can say that with sincerity and kindness, it's going to help them understand that you're not trying to sabotage your chances.

3. Trust Your Gut

Job seeker answers an illegal interview question

My third tip is to trust your gut. Sometimes you can just tell that somebody is really innocent, and doesn't know any better. Maybe they're asking if you have any children because they want to talk about family. Or, they could really be trying to pry and figure out what kind of commitments you'll have outside of the job.

It's tough to tell, but keep an open mind and really look at the individual that's asking you these questions. You'll be able to get a sense of whether or not this is a savvy, seasoned hiring professional who knows right from wrong when it comes to legal questions, or if this is somebody really new who isn't used to recruiting or hiring people and probably hasn't had any training and is mistakenly asking the wrong question.

Either way, if you trust your gut, you can use the first two tips to really articulate, clarify, and try to work through this without going on the attack.

4. Answer The Question

Professional woman doesn't know how to handle an illegal interview question

My fourth tip is to answer the question, but also add to the end of it something that really makes it clear that this is a discriminating question. Let's go back to that example of, "Do you have any children?"

You might respond with, "Yes, I actually have two children, but let me assure you that my personal obligations with my family outside of work will in no way affect my ability to do this job exceedingly well."

By making that statement, you're driving home the point that this shouldn't be something that's considered when thinking about someone as a candidate. It's a nice way of saying, "Hey, this is not a relevant question."

Dealing with illegal interview questions is hard, but now you know that illegal interview questions can be sneaky—and you also know how to answer them correctly.


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