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What to Do If an Employer Asks an Off-Limits Interview Question

What to Do If an Employer Asks an Off-Limits Interview Question
Credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Job interviews are stressful for both the interviewer and interviewee. Hiring managers must ask suitable questions, while applicants must articulate appropriate answers.

However, while candidates might feel the most pressure, interviewers should be just as careful with their words. Certain questions have been deemed illegal in some or all states, including questions about previous salary and religion. According to a new TopResume survey, 80 percent of job seekers say they've been asked these potentially sensitive questions in interviews.

Keep in mind that some interviewers haven't been properly trained and may ask off-limits questions without realizing, said Vicki Salemi, career expert for Monster. However, being asked these questions can still feel intimidating and uncomfortable. Here's how to handle illegal or inappropriate questions from hiring managers.

It might seem like the interviewer has all the power. After all, they are the one making the decision about your future employment at the company. But candidates still have a say in the interview process.

If an interviewer asks an off-limits question, try to identify their concerns and steer the conversation to address them, said Amanda Augustine, career advice expert for TopResume.

"Candidates should always remember that they are interviewing the employer as much as they are being interviewed," Salemi added. "You absolutely have the right and power to steer the conversation in the direction you'd like and to shut down anything that feels inappropriate and irrelevant."

For instance, if they ask about your previous salary, push back by asking what the range is for this new position.  

"The conversation should feel like a ping pong match – lightly lob it back into their side of the court," Salemi said.

There's no harm in telling an interviewer that you feel uncomfortable answering a question or adhering to a request. For instance, if they want to photocopy your license (and a contract has not been offered and signed yet), you can say that you prefer to hold off on that type of paperwork until a job offer has been extended, as you're concerned about identify theft.

If you flat-out refuse to answer, it may seem like you're belligerent. Honesty is better than rejection; you can say that you'd rather not disclose the information, noting that you technically don't have to, said Salemi.

The good news is that interviewers and employers who ask off-limits questions don't get off scot-free. There can be consequences to their actions that could affect their interviewing and hiring in the future.

The main cost is losing candidates. Most workers wouldn't accept a position with a company that probes into inappropriate matters.

"If they're clearly crossing the line now, what would happen once you're working for them?" said Salemi. "This is an appropriate time to professionally withdraw your candidacy and pursue other employers who are in fact appropriate."

She added that a bad reputation is another consequence. "Word will get out that they're inappropriate, and they'll have an even more difficult time filling those roles."

"Thanks to websites like Glassdoor and Vault, candidates have a place to share their interview experiences with the masses," said Augustine. "In addition, anyone can share their story on social media and shine a spotlight on a company that's discriminating against job candidates during the hiring process."

Jennifer Post

Jennifer Post graduated from Rowan University in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. Having worked in the food industry, print and online journalism, and marketing, she is now a freelance contributor for Business News Daily and business.com. When she's not working, you will find her exploring her current town of Cape May, New Jersey, or binge-watching "Pretty Little Liars" for the 700th time.