Handling illegal interview questions

One of my job-seeking clients recently had an interview in which the employer asked her a question about her race/ethnicity. It was for a position that required a lot of cross-cultural understanding, and my guess is that the employer wanted to know whether the candidate had the cross-cultural skills needed for the job. However, employers should know that such questions are illegal.

An illegal question could mean one of two things about an employer: 1. They are ignorant of basic interview rules and regulations (which could be possible, especially in small organizations without a good HR person), and they think that a job interview is the same as a friendly chat; or 2. They do know the rules, but are deliberately breaking them in order to potentially discriminate against candidates. I always hope it’s #1, but you never know. You have a few choices on how to answer such questions—you can say:

a)      “That is an illegal question.” –this will probably end the interview and your chances at the job; but if you are truly offended by a question to the point that you would be thrilled never to work for this employer, you can end the interview this way, while doing your part to educate an ignorant interviewer about the law.

b)      “Can you explain to me how this is related to whether I’m qualified for the job?”—this is a bit pushy, but helps re-focus the discussion where it needs to be.

c)       “If you are concerned that I do not have enough bi-cultural sensitivity, please be assured that my years of international and cross-cultural experience has given me all the skills I need to communicate across cultures.”—This doesn’t answer the question about what your ethnicity is, but tries to guess (giving the benefit of the doubt that they are not asking your ethnicity in order to discriminate, but to see if you are qualified for the job) why they might be asking an illegal question, and to address the underlying concern they have.

How have you handled illegal interview questions?

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