What to Do If You're Asked an Inappropriate (or Illegal) Question During a Job Interview

When you’re interviewing for a job—and particularly one you really want—it can be tempting to tell your interviewer everything they want to hear. But some innocent-sounding questions are actually inappropriate (and often illegal) given the context. Whether they’re being asked maliciously or not, here’s your guide to handling these types of questions if they come up in an interview.

First things first: An interview is about your qualifications for the job

There are some fine legal lines between what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to job interviews—but the general rule of thumb is that anything you’re asked should relate to your qualifications for the job in question.

At a high level, the regulations around interview questions and employment decisions are designed to protect potential employees from discrimination unrelated to their ability to do the job. In some cases, there may be mandatory qualifications (and therefore related questions), referred to as Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications (BFOQs), which may otherwise seem out of line but in the context of the employer or role make a lot of sense. 

Asking someone’s age, for example, is generally off limits, but may be permissible to ask of airline pilots as there are broader safety regulations around this. BFOQs have to do with hiring based on age, sex, race, national origin, or religion. Most tech roles, however, shouldn’t come with any BFOQs, so something that feels uncomfortable very likely is.

While many seemingly innocent questions appear to be the interviewer’s attempt to get to know you (and may well be!), answering questions about your family status, religion, etc. may unfairly bias your interviewer and distract them from the question at hand: Whether or not you’re the best candidate for this specific role.

What’s actually off limits?

Companies are not allowed to make hiring decisions based on any of the following (excluding in the case of BFOQs): 

  • Age
  • Marital and family status
  • Disabilities
  • Race or color
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Birthplace, nationality, or ancestry
  • Salary history (in some places—check your state and city regulations)

How to tackle illegal or inappropriate questions

Your first and more extreme option is to refuse to answer or to end the interview, which may be a reasonable response if you’re feeling incredibly uncomfortable or notice that many of the questions being asked are trending towards the unacceptable. If this is the case, chances are you won’t want to work for the company in the first place, so there won’t be much to lose. 

The more common response, however, is a trickier one; it involves the delicate balance between avoiding a direct answer and keeping the conversation going. This requires signaling to the interviewer that they’ve crossed a boundary without accusing them of doing so with harmful intent. 

As a first resort, consider whether you can gracefully circumvent the question, which will likely require a fair amount of thinking on your toes. If you’re on the younger side and asked about your age, for example, you might say “I tend to be younger than my peers with the same amount of work experience and qualifications because ____ (I didn’t finish college and instead started working, etc.).” With any of these questions, see if you can reframe your answer around your skills and qualifications rather that the exact piece of data that was originally queried.

Another tactic is to flip the question around to them, as the laws about acceptable interview questions don’t apply in reverse. Questions around marital and family status are common, as companies like to get a sense of how committed you’ll be—but direct questions like “are you or are you planning on getting married?” and “are you thinking about having kids?” are technically off limits. Even if your answer is a hard “no”, the more neutral response is “I’m not really sure about that right now as I’m more focused on growing my career.”

If you’ve already avoided a question once but your interviewer keeps prodding, a simple way out is to ask them how it’s relevant to your qualifications for the job. If they can’t answer that, chances are they were out of line for asking it in the first place.

At the end of the day, most interview questions are asked with innocent-enough intentions, but your answers may lead to conscious and/or unconscious discrimination—so you’re doing both yourself and the company a favor to skirt around answering these types of questions. 

About the Author

Napala Pratini

Napala is a consultant to early-stage technology companies. Prior to going independent, Napala led marketing initiatives across both consumer and B2B fintech for employers including NerdWallet and Earnest. In past lives she was a ballet dancer and a cancer researcher.