Illegal interview questions have been around for as long as there have been interviews

By Natalie Lundsteen

Inside Higher Education, May 18, 2015 — During a job interview, have you ever been asked any of the following questions?

– Do you have kids?
– Are you planning on having kids?
– How soon?
– Are you married?
– Thinking about getting married?
– To a man or a woman?
– Will anyone else be relocating to your new job city with you?
– What do you think about working in an all-female department?
– Lundsteen — is that a Dutch name? Danish?
– Are you a U.S. citizen?

These questions are all illegal. If you haven’t had a lot of experience interviewing, it might seem difficult to identify interview questions that are not legal, so here are a few identifiers: any questions that touch upon your age, race, national origin, gender, religion, marital status or sexual orientation are not OK.

Illegal interview questions have been around for as long as there have been interviews, and there are many very good articles and resources available to help you determine what illegal interview questions are, along with ideas on how to answer or not answer them. But once identified, how do you decide what actions to take?

And what are the types of actions you can take? Grad students and postdocs often ask these very important questions — sometimes too late in their application process for it to be of much help.

I would like to put these questions into context with a simple scenario:

Imagine that you are asked a question like any of the ones above while being interviewed by a panel of faculty members. You’ve been waiting two years to finally get the chance to interview for this job. Should you jump up from your seat and shout that you simply aren’t prepared to answer that question and cannot see the relevance to the work you will be doing as an assistant professor at ABC College? Or maybe just state that response in a matter-of-fact tone without the dramatics?

Now imagine you are out to dinner with a group of students and faculty during your campus visit and an illegal-type question is casually asked in the oh-so-informal setting of the interview meal. Do you act like you didn’t hear the question? Pretend to choke on a roll to deflect the awkwardness?

Heck, no. The reality for Ph.D.s is that the job market is too tough to risk any kind of pushback in an interview situation (or at least this is the word on the street from the graduate students and postdocs I advise).

Being asked an illegal question, whether overtly or in a more surreptitious way, puts the job candidate in a quandary, and there are no easy answers for handling the response. The context and type of illegal questions you might be asked will, of course, depend on the situation. This essay cannot possibly provide perfect interview situation advice for everyone, but it may be useful to consider stepping back and getting some perspective on the who/what/why and where of illegal interview questions, should one come your way.

Think about why the question might have been asked and (attempt to) understand the person doing the asking. Let’s hope that most of the time when these verbal grenades are lobbed in your direction they come from a place of ignorance rather than maliciousness.

Most academic interviewers are not extensively trained in the art of conducting interviews. They may be completely out of their own comfort zones, they may be harboring resentments or jealousy about any number of aspects of the job you are applying for, or they might just be exhausted and crabby after grading 50 midterms and meeting a grant-writing deadline. These aren’t excuses, just potential explanations.

During this past year’s academic hiring cycle, a friend interviewing for a tenure-track position at a large Midwestern research university was asked if she was “looking for a fella.” The questioner was well meaning, and looking to “sell” the variety and availability of potential life partners in the area, should my friend choose to build her career and personal life at Cornfields U.

The job didn’t appeal to her for many reasons, so the illegal interview question has merely become an amusing anecdote. But — if she had loved the university and the potential colleagues in the department, she would have had to determine if that question represented one individual or the mind-set of the institution, and then weigh up the benefits of that tenure-track role versus the environment and culture.

Always be prepared for a zinger, but also be prepared to give yourself permission to let an illegal question simply happen in an interview situation, then move on, knowing that you will deal with it later when you have time to think it through like the awesome analyzer you are. Never give an unconsidered response, no matter how taken aback you are. If there are others in the room when the question is asked, they might address the questioner on your behalf.

You might be able to manage a deflecting answer, such as, “That’s an interesting question you just asked me about my plans to have kids. Do you have kids yourself?” but it takes an expert interviewee to be able to think on your feet in a high-pressure situation, and you do run the risk of sounding defensive. Your response to an illegal question (if any) must be deliberate and unhurried. Take time to decide if you even want to respond. This is why practicing for interviews is so important — the more confident you are overall, the less an illegal question will affect you in the moment.

No matter if an interview lasts a few hours or a few days, you will always get a chance to regroup, figure out what the story is behind that illegal question and take whatever action may be called for.

Your opportunity to think about the question might come later in the interview day — perhaps in a follow-up conversation with the person who asked the question, or you might be able to bring the subject up for discussion with a different interviewer. You might be able to see the illegal question as an honest mistake, or it might be a true red flag. Keep in mind that graduate career advisers are an excellent objective resource to assist you in these situations.

In a difficult job market, it might feel like you absolutely have to take a job because another one will never come around, but trust your feelings and think deliberately about any uncomfortable questions or scenarios after an interview. Illegal questions might signal many negative aspects about work culture and toxic colleagues, or they might just be dumb questions.

Natalie Lundsteen is director of graduate career development at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.