As you might expect, not all interviewers have taken the time to parse the regulations that govern their behavior. Most of them have the obvious missteps under control, so you are unlikely to find interviewers asking direct questions about your racial identity or religious affiliation.
That leaves plenty of room for job interview questions that are slightly more subtle but equally problematic. It may also be the case that interviewers ask an illegal question when they really intend to ask something else.
Perhaps the company works double shifts on Saturdays, and the interviewer wants to be sure that nothing will interfere with your ability to adhere to that schedule, “such as religious obligations.”
The company is genuinely uninterested in your religion per se. In that case, an illegal question about your religious beliefs could have been more artfully phrased as one about your availability to work on Saturdays, and the interviewer would have obtained the information without breaking the law.
To some extent, then, your choice of response may be governed by whether you think your interviewer really expects you to answer an illegal question. In some cases, your interviewer might be asking a legitimate question but phrasing it in a way that crosses the line. That can happen when your interviewer is inexperienced or simply inarticulate. The difference may affect how you answer.
Your answers will depend on your personal situation and your assessment of the interviewer, but you have several choices when deciding how to respond.
Answer the question
You can, of course, answer the question directly. This course of action does the least to disrupt the interview. If you have developed any rapport with the job interviewer, you won’t harm it with a simple answer, and it is highly unlikely that your interviewer posed the question to test your knowledge of employment law. They do not expect you to challenge the question’s legality. If it helps, you can make the assumption that your interviewers don’t know any better and that the question was an innocent mistake.
Answer the real question
If you think there is a hidden question behind the interviewer’s words, you can choose to answer that hidden question instead of the ostensible one. If your interviewer asks about your religion, for example, your knowledge of the company may allow you to infer the real concern: that you may not be available when the company needs you. Instead of answering directly, you might respond, “I know the company operates every day of the week, and there is nothing that would make it difficult for me to be available whenever I’m needed.”
This approach does require you to look behind the curtain and find the appropriate concern that was couched in inappropriate language, another example of the value of knowing as much about the company as you can. Without that knowledge, it can be much harder to draw inferences from simple questions.
Answer with your own question
If you cannot imagine a legitimate reason for the interviewer asking an inappropriate question, and you would rather not answer, you can ask for an explanation: “Can you please tell me why you are asking?”
If the interviewer neither moves on nor rephrases the question, you have no choice but to continue with one of the other approaches, hoping your question has not irrevocably poisoned the atmosphere.
Question the relevance
You can also confront the illegal question with a request that it be explained in the context of the job. If an interviewer asks about your family situation, you may well be wondering what that has to do with your professional competence.
Make that concern explicit: “I’m not sure that I understand how my family situation affects my past work or the work I would like to do here, and I’d like to focus on the things that are really important to the job. Can you explain to me how it is relevant to the position we’re talking about?”
This is not much different from the previous suggestion, but it does pose a topic that may encourage the interviewers to return to job-specific questions, and it gives them an easy way to get there. An outright refusal to get back to business, however, again leaves you to select one of your other options.
Confront the illegality
Confrontation is never something we hope for in a job interview. We would like everyone to be comfortable. We want the interview to be a conversation between people who find some natural affinity. We want to get along.
Whatever the situation, you can say, “I don’t think that’s a question you can legally ask in an interview, and I would like to move on to other questions.”
Don’t expect your interviewer to say, “You’re so right, and I don’t know what came over me! I’ve never asked that kind of question before. I apologize, and I’m really impressed with your knowledge of employment law.” There is some slight chance that the interviewer knows it was wrong and that he has been legitimately embarrassed by asking the question. There is at least an equal chance that he thinks you are being difficult.
Regardless of the interviewer’s response, this is unlikely to be one of your best interviewing moments.
You can win if you concentrate your efforts on getting past this awkward situation. It helps if you raised your initial objection in a tactful, matter-of-fact way, not as an aggressive challenge. If you have managed that, and the interviewer does not immediately move on, lend a hand. Change the subject. You can elaborate on something that has gone before: “I wanted to mention something about my role in that marketing project at XYZ Company that I hadn’t managed to cover before.”
In any event, regardless of how wrong the interviewer was, it is your job to put things back on course. You may have to swallow your pride, but your willingness to do that depends entirely on how badly you want this job. Only you can decide.
With practice, you are less likely to be thrown off guard if you are asked one of those inappropriate questions. Once you have actually given voice to your answers, you are much more likely to arrive at a style of response that feels right to you. The illegal question makes for an uncomfortable moment, and the more naturally you can respond, the more likely it is that you can ease the interview back to more congenial ground. As in any aspect of the interview, the key is to avoid being taken by surprise.