illegal interview questions

Did You Know It’s Illegal for an Employer to Ask Your Salary History?

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You’ve probably seen a box on a job application asking what your salary was at your previous job. Or, you’ve been asked in an interview about your salary history. Did you know this is illegal in 30 states? Well, it is. And it’s only one of several illegal interview questions you’ve probably received.

Illegal interview questions

Some of the most common illegal interview questions include those about family status, pregnancy (or plans for it), age (sometimes to assume stereotypes about your generation), and the one about salary history.

Female candidates tend to be more of a target for illegal interview questions, especially in regards to family planning and pregnancy.

And according to a recent survey, 39% of hiring managers say they always ask about salary history, even though it’s illegal in most states. But knowing a candidate’s past salary is useless for an employer since salaries vary based on geographic location, experience, and industry, especially if the candidate is applying for a job a step up from their previous role.

Other illegal interview questions in most jurisdictions include:

  • When did you graduate from high school? (Used to try to determine your age.)
  • Where were you born? (Used to try to determine your nationality, race, or ethnicity.)
  • Questions about sex, gender, or sexual orientation.
  • Questions about your religion, including what religious holidays you observe.
  • Health and disability-related questions, asking if you have a disability or get sick often.
  • Financial questions to determine if you have any outstanding debt or own your own home.
  • The type of discharge you received or if you saw combat while in the military.
  • Questions about your political affiliation, memberships, or activities in organizations, unless directly relevant to the job.
  • Questions about your criminal history or arrest record, unless relevant to the job or allowed by law.

Why employers ask these questions

Some employers ask illegal interview questions simply because they don’t know any better. They haven’t received proper training by HR staff to conduct job interviews. Or, they may be unaware of the laws in the state where the candidate is from (if interviewing an out-of-state candidate).

Sometimes, the questions just come up unintentionally in casual conversation occurring before or after the official interview.

Other interviewers ask such questions because they know most candidates want a job offer, and therefore are reluctant to report it or speak out against it. And some hiring managers know they won’t get in trouble with their supervisor for asking such questions.

How to handle illegal interview questions

It can be an awkward situation when you’re in an interview and are faced with one of these personal questions. Perhaps you really want the job and don’t want to ruin your chances of receiving an offer. But you also feel uncomfortable answering the question. What do you do?

1. Recognize the question. Sometimes illegal interview questions can be subtle, so it’s important to identify them correctly. The list above should help you with this.

2. Consider the context. Use your judgment to decide whether it’s worth pursuing the opportunity further, or if the incident reflects broader issues within the company culture.

3. If you’re comfortable, you can directly address the concern behind the question without providing the illegal information. For example, if asked about future family plans, you could say, “I’m committed to my career and confident in my ability to balance work and personal responsibilities effectively.”

4. You can tactfully redirect the conversation back to the relevant topic. For instance, if asked about your salary history, you might say, “I’m confident my past experience and skills make me a strong candidate for this role. Would you like me to elaborate on my qualifications?”

5. Know your rights by familiarizing yourself with local laws and regulations regarding employment discrimination.

6. If you feel comfortable and safe doing so, consider reporting the incident to relevant authorities within the company, or to external agencies responsible for enforcing employment laws.

7. Stay professional. Regardless of how uncomfortable the situation may be, maintain your professionalism throughout the interview process. How you handle challenging situations can reflect positively on your character and professionalism.

How to answer illegal interview questions

If you determine it’s not worth making an issue, you can still keep yourself safe from discrimination. Here are some additional responses to redirect and deflect in a diplomatic manner:

  • Age. “I have [X years of] experience in [relevant field], which has equipped me with the skills necessary for this position.”
  • Race, ethnicity, or nationality. “My background and experiences have prepared me for this role. I’m confident in my ability to contribute effectively to your team.”
  • Sex, gender, or sexual orientation. “My personal life is separate from my professional qualifications. I know my skills and experiences make me a strong fit for this position.”
  • Marital or family status. “I’m committed to my career and have the flexibility to dedicate myself to this role. My personal life will not interfere with my ability to perform effectively.”
  • Religion. “I can assure you my religious beliefs will not prevent me from delivering excellent results in this role.”
  • Health and disability. “I’m able to perform the essential functions of this job with or without reasonable accommodations. My focus is on contributing my skills and expertise to the team.”
  • Financial status. “I believe my financial situation is irrelevant to my ability to excel in this position. I’m fully committed to meeting the expectations and requirements of the role.”
  • Military service. “While I appreciate your interest, I prefer not to disclose details about my military service. What I can say, is my experiences have equipped me with valuable skills applicable to this role.”
  • Affiliations. “I believe my professional qualifications and experiences are the most relevant factors for this position. I’m fully committed to contributing my expertise to your organization.”
  • Arrest record. “I prefer not to discuss my personal legal history. Rest assured, I am committed to upholding the law and fulfilling the responsibilities of this position.”

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