7 Interview Questions You Don’t Have to Answer

Employers rarely come right out and ask your age or ethnicity during a job interview. Nonetheless, some interviewers ask more subtle, seemingly innocent questions that may violate anti-discrimination laws or your privacy rights.

While refusing to answer the questions listed below is certainly within your rights, sometimes the best option is to clarify the interviewer’s intent or to stick with information about your qualifications and skills. 

1. “Your last name sounds familiar. Does your spouse work for Google?”

Employers aren’t allowed to base hiring decisions on an applicant’s marital status. So even if the interviewer is simply trying to build rapport, he shouldn’t ask for the name of your spouse or what he or she does for a living.

How to Respond: If you think the interviewer is fishing for your marital status, you could ask about the relevance of the question, or indicate that you are uncomfortable with personal questions. Mention that you’re more than willing to discuss your professional qualifications, instead.

2. “Our ‘egg freezing’ benefit is quite popular with our staffers. Do you have children, or have you been thinking about starting a family?”

Whatever your gender, it’s inappropriate for employers to ask about children, future family plans or childcare arrangements, according to Benjamin King, an employment discrimination attorney and partner with Douglas, Leonard & Garvey. The information could violate Title VII if it is used to deny employment opportunities, he explained.

“It falls under a new species of liability that covers sex or gender stereotyping,” King noted.

How to Respond: Since the interviewer may be worried that you won’t be able to balance workplace and family demands, talk about how committed you are to your career, or how you don’t have an issue with the schedule or hours. Alternatively, flip the script by mentioning that you have researched the company and were impressed with its reputation and progressive benefits package. Deflecting to another topic is a great way to handle intrusive, borderline questions.

3. “Like most startups, we’re on a tight budget. What was your previous salary?”

While experts have written volumes about how to dodge the salary question, you don’t have to answer if you’re interviewing in a city or state where the practice is banned, explained Jennine Leale, owner of HRPro Consulting Services LLC.

How to Respond: Employers are allowed to ask about your expectations, Leale explained. In light of that, simply state that you expect to receive market-based pay.

4. “I see that you have experience with COBOL and Fortran. How much longer do you plan to work?”

Employers aren’t allowed to ask questions that probe for age or imply that you might be over the hill. But it’s a slippery slope, because an interviewer can ask about your ability to work long hours, learn new programs, or fit into a high-energy culture. Plus, age discrimination is one of the most difficult types of cases to prosecute, according to King.

How to Respond: If you feel like your age is working against you, talk about the effort you’ve put into your previous jobs, and how you’ve managed to exchange knowledge and establish rapport with junior teammates.

5. “You’ll need a security clearance. Have you ever been arrested or spent time in jail?”

Generally speaking, employers are allowed to ask about an applicant’s criminal history. However, some localities have ”banned the box,” or only allow employers to consider job-related convictions. Many state laws provide some protections for applicants with a criminal past.

How to Respond: If you’ve gotten into a few scrapes with the law, know your rights. If accurate, state that you haven’t been convicted of a felony within the last seven years. (By the way, now that possession and recreational or medical use of marijuana is legal in some areas, many employers are rethinking their pre-hire drug testing and conviction policies, so stay tuned.)

6. “I see that you received your technical training in the military. Have you been treated for PTSD?”

Employers are not allowed to ask about your current or past health conditions, how many sick days you took at your last job, or whether you smoke or drink. However, they can ask about your ability to perform basic job duties.

How to Respond: Simply state that you are able to perform the essential functions of the job, and that you can meet the company’s attendance or non-smoking policy.

7. “You’ll need to communicate with external clients. Are you a native English speaker?

Employers can’t ask about your national origin or whether English is your primary language. But they can evaluate your communication skills and refuse to hire you due to a lack of fluency (although an employer must show a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason why they turned you down).

How to Respond: Your best bet is to ignore the “illegal” part of the question, and instead offer examples of situations where you have successfully communicated with external stakeholders.

Final Tip

While many employment laws are federal, some vary by state and city. Therefore, you should always consult an attorney or file a charge if you feel you’ve been discriminated against.

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