How to deal with illegal questions at interview

Recruitment guru James Reed’s updated new book provides an A-Z of the questions you may be asked at interview. Here he talks about the questions you shouldn’t be asked.

Recruitment: People seated waiting for interviews holding CVs


When did you start your career? Where are you from originally? Do you celebrate any specific religious holidays? All these are illegal questions at interview.

Even before the pandemic saw competition for jobs really intensify, the reality of job interviews is that it is more or less inevitable that interviewees will – at some point – be asked what is essentially an illegal question.

Every interviewee needs to face the dilemma of how should they personally react. Do you take legal action? End the interview? Refuse to answer? Or decide to give an answer?

What are illegal questions at interview?

What employers are allowed to ask about and what they’re not is straightforward. Questions about your marital status, sexual orientation, children or intent to have them, religion, age, disability status and country of origin are out of bounds and, legally speaking, interviewers can get slapped with discrimination lawsuits if they ignore these rules. Some interviewers are ignorant, some are sneaky and others will ask anyway knowing them to be illegal.

To resort to law is always and completely your prerogative. But in the cut and thrust of an interview, interviewees respond differently depending on how offensive they find a particular question, and how much they want a particular job. Indeed, many interviewees choose to ignore their discrimination lawsuit option and, instead, answer.

Handling illegal questions at interview

So, how can interviewees handle these uncomfortable questions? Bluntly telling the interviewer their ham-fisted question is completely inappropriate is utterly justified (though obviously this will definitely hurt, if not utterly destroy, any job chances).

Other times, an interview is more conversational and wanders into technically dicey territory through the seemingly innocent flow of conversation. If that happens, and also if the candidate feels personally unbothered by a question, they might decide to go ahead and answer.

But what about the middle ground? Legalities aside, interviewers have a genuine interest in the commitment and ability of any candidate to do the job. Looked at structurally, the implicit subtext of many of these questions really is: Will you be distracted by your personal life? Will you fit in around here?

The personal situation of an interviewee does, in reality, sometimes impact their perceived suitability. So how should interviewees respond when they sense the interview is probing off-limits topics but also believe their motivation is not blatantly discriminatory?

Address the underlying concern

One possible approach in these situations is to address the underlying concern behind the question while dodging the specific illegal query:

Q: What an interesting accent – where are you from originally?
A: I’m from [name where you live] – (only if you wish to answer further) though my family are from [country]

Q: Will you be taking any specific religious holidays?
A: I’ve never had any issues staying within the limits of my employer’s policy on leave before and don’t imagine that will be a problem here either.

One final option before resorting to legal advice is the blatant dodge. The subtext of this response is essentially, ‘That’s inappropriate and I’m not going to answer,’ but the wrapping is warmer and less aggressive. For example:

Q: Do you have kids?
A: (Pointing to a picture on the desk). I see you have two. How old are they?

If the interviewer persists – despite attempts to nudge the conversation back on track – interviewees might want to think long and hard about whether this is really the right company for them.

*James Reed is the Chairman of recruitment company REED and author of Why You? 101 Interview Questions You’ll Never Fear Again, just published in paperback in an updated version. It covers all the questions you are likely to get asked, what you might reply, questions you might like to ask and interview technique. There is also an extra chapter for questions about how tech savvy you are. Price £9.99.

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