“Illegal” Questions at Job Interviews

(Note: I’m hoping this will be the first in a series of posts related to faculty searches. Hopefully I’ll be able to find time to write more posts soon!)

As most readers of this blog probably know, there is a set of questions that are often referred to as “illegal” questions in the context of a job interview (e.g., questions relating to age, marital status, children, sexual orientation, disabilities, etc.) My understanding is that asking the questions themselves isn’t illegal – it’s acting on that information that is. But, since it’s hard to know if someone acted on the information once it’s received, generally HR departments (and good search chairs, department chairs, etc) do their best to make sure these questions aren’t asked at job interviews.*

But, as many of us have experienced first hand, the “illegal” questions are still asked — pretty frequently, it seems. When I interviewed for faculty positions as a postdoc, I was asked at least one of the illegal questions at each interview. In several cases, the person asking the question was the chair of the search or department. I knew to expect these questions (though was surprised when they came from the chair), but it was still awkward to deal with.

My advice to people asking the questions is obvious: don’t do it. If you actually care about that info, you are unlikely to get accurate answers. And, regardless of whether or not you actually care, you stand a good chance of giving the impression that you do and scaring off people who might be good additions to your department. It also is likely to throw off the candidate, making that person less likely to present his/her strongest side. If a candidate brings up something, answer the specific question, but don’t probe for more info. Otherwise, avoid the topic altogether.

My advice to people who are asked the illegal questions is more complicated. I do agree with Hope Jahren** that it’s fine to lie when answering the questions. I didn’t use this approach when interviewing, but I have in other situations where I’ve been asked inappropriate questions. When I was asked an illegal question on an interview, I usually ended up answering them honestly, but only after fumbling for a bit, as I tried to decide exactly how to answer them. I remember sitting on the plane on the way to my first interview, with a list of questions that I might be asked, thinking through answers. I can no longer remember how I was planning on answering the illegal questions. I think I considered trying to figure out how to somewhat politely point out that it was an illegal question, but I don’t think there’s really a way to do that. So, in the end, I answered them honestly. I do remember that, even though I thought I had prepared to answer them, I still felt thrown off when they were asked. Which brings me back to what I covered in the previous paragraph: asking these questions puts people in awkward situations. There’s no ideal way to answer them. That’s part of why it’s so important that they not be asked in the first place.

Were you asked illegal questions at an interview? How did you handle them? How did you wish you handled them? And what do you do to ensure that job candidates at your university aren’t asked them?

*Several of the places I’ve been have sent lists of these questions to the department ahead of interviews, to make sure people know not to ask these questions. In one case, there was a typo on the list, making it say that it was illegal to ask “How are you?” which I found amusing. Presumably that was supposed to be “How old are you?” Which, yes, is one of the illegal questions I was asked when interviewing for faculty positions. I never took offense, however, when people asked how I was. 🙂

**Hope has revealed herself as the author of this post, and has now started her own blog. It’s definitely recommended reading!

Related post
From Jeremy: How faculty search committees really work

38 thoughts on ““Illegal” Questions at Job Interviews

    • Thanks! I am considering linking to a whole bunch of these types of sites, given that it’s job season. This one wasn’t on my list, so thanks for the link!

  1. Worth noting that you’re writing this very much from a North American perspective and the position regarding such “illegal questions” is going to be very different in other parts of the world (where presumably a lot of readers will live!) For example, one of my former PhD students applied for a postdoc position in a South American country and was asked via email “how old are you?” When she told them, the response was “don’t even bother applying”. I imagine that face-to-face interviews in that institution are not much different….

    • Yes! Apparently in Germany you are required to submit a headshot with your application, so I suspect that German faculty members are, on average, better looking than their US counterparts (no offense to anybody here!).

      • So, do applicants for German faculty positions photoshop their headshots? 🙂 Or use ones that are way out of date, the way some book authors do? 🙂

        If I was applying for a job in Germany, I’d be tempted to accompany my application with a headshot of a much better ecologist. Dave Tilman or Tony Ives or someone like that. 🙂

  2. I don’t recall being asked any “illegal” questions during UK interviews (there was always an HR rep on the panel), but I was definitely asked at least one stupid question that should have been illegal:

    Q: “How would you contribute to teaching for the new Masters course we haven’t advertised yet, but are starting next year in [a subject area that is clearly unrelated to anything in your CV which I’ve apparently not bothered to read]?”

    A: “I think you can see from my CV that I don’t have direct experience in that subject area, but I consider myself smart enough to be able to contribute constructively given enough information about the course objectives, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be here.”

    I didn’t get that job, and I’m not at all upset about it. I’d go as far as to say, I’m relieved I didn’t 😉

  3. How about when your interviewer knows personal stuff about you because that information was included (presumably in a positive way) in a letter of reference? It totally threw me off when an interviewer asked me about my family, already knowing what it consisted of…

    • Ugh, that’s annoying and obviously inappropriate on the part of the letter writer. Some things that people write in letters are, um, interesting.

  4. On every single job interview I went on, somebody asked me about whether or not I had a partner and if I had kids. They were generally asking in a helpful manner. For example, they wanted to tell me about family-friendly neighborhoods or talk about the local school districts. Although I realize now that their intentions were good, as you said Meg, it always threw me off when they asked because I had to figure out why they were asking and whether I should be be upfront or aloof.

    • Yeah, that’s been my experience as well–questions about family and kids get asked by people who are totally just trying to be friendly and helpful. I guess I’m a trusting sort and so if someone asks me that sort of question, and the context suggests that the question is well-meant (e.g., it’s a friendly one-on-one conversation with someone not on the search committee), I just answer honestly. But that’s just me.

      • I also generally thought the person was well-intentioned, but that was more in hindsight (which Casey seems to be indicating, too). At the time, it certainly threw me off.

        Another issue with asking these questions relates to stereotype threat: where being reminded that you are in a particular group affects your performance. This is yet another post I’m hoping to find time to write. . . you know, once all these proposals and applications decide to review themselves.

  5. Question, Meg (arising from some comments above from Casey and I): What are your thoughts on asking and answering “illegal” questions in one-on-one conversations with people who aren’t on the search committee? Part of why I ask is that it seems like this gets into a slightly gray area (?) as to which parts of a job interview are “officially” part of the interview. Obviously, it’s potentially problematic if you answer an “illegal” question in some meeting that’s not “officially” part of the interview, and that information makes its way back to the search committee. But as a practical matter, it’s tough to ensure that everyone with whom a job applicant meets avoids asking “illegal” questions. Plus, as Casey notes, many folks who ask “illegal” questions are actually just trying to be friendly and helpful–and at least some candidates might actually welcome the help (advice on local school districts or whatever). Should everyone who meets with a candidate have formal training of some sort, so that nobody who meets candidates ever asks “illegal” questions? Or is the important thing that folks on the search committee–i.e. the folks who actually have official decision-making power–not act on any “illegal” information that reaches them from other folks?

    • I think the whole thing is officially part of the interview, from the point when the person is picked up at the airport until they’re dropped off at the airport when the whole thing is over. You might feel like you’re out to a casual dinner (or coffee or whatever), but it doesn’t feel that way to the candidate. Plus, s/he has no way of knowing if you play squash with the chair of the search committee (or whatever). (More realistically, this would likely happen during the informal conversations that are really common in hallways just after a job candidate leaves.) So, I would say that you should avoid those questions regardless of whether you are on the search committee. It still puts the candidate in an awkward position, still raises the chance that it will make the candidate think that information might be used against him/her, and I would guess it still puts the university at legal risk (but obviously am not an expert on this).

      I don’t think everyone needs formal training, but I think an email to the whole department (and everyone who has signed up to meet with a candidate) is a good idea. That email can just remind people that certain topics are off limits unless raised by the candidate. As an example: at one place I’ve been, a member of the support staff who wasn’t normally involved in searches came to a job candidate’s talk because she was interested in it. At the end of the talk, she raised her hand and said something like “Wow, that was all really interesting. I loved hearing about your science. Now can you tell me more about your family?” I think there was an audible gasp in the room, and an email with a list of questions not to ask went out to the whole department shortly thereafter.

    • Yup. What Meg and Brian said. When we were hiring, our chair had a meeting of all the grad students and in that meeting he told us the questions we weren’t allowed to ask. Even grad students are part of the official interview…

      • Well done to Minnesota for doing that. Don’t know if it’s done elsewhere, though it should be. We don’t do it, I don’t think. Heck, even faculty at Calgary who aren’t on the search committee don’t ordinarily get formal instructions as to what questions they aren’t allowed to ask candidates. At least not as far as I can recall.

      • Minnesota’s current EEB chair is *awesome*. My most recent interaction with him: I emailed him towards the end of a recent cluster hire when I noticed that all the offers that had been turned down were due to ‘inability to accommodate the spouse/partner’ and asked if he could talk broadly about what the department does to try to accommodate spouses (and why it fails sometimes). He wrote me a long email in reply and also drafted up an official department policy that would be shared with applicants up-front, so they would know when it was appropriate to reveal needs for spousal accommodation. Wish everywhere would write such a policy…

  6. Great post and definitely something to think about before the interview (although it can be hard to predict how you’ll actually respond during the interview).

    There is an alternate strategy. There is nothing that prevents the interviewee from proactively disclosing information on the forbidden question list. It depends on the question, but I generally disclosed that I had a wife and two kids and asked questions about how-family friendly the department was (usually in informal settings to junior faculty not on the search committee). It put things on a totally different footing when I volunteered it and I got useful information and – although it never came up – presumably helped avoid terrible matches. It gave me the power/initiative and I was never waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is a bit bold/risky and is easier when you have several interviews lined up. But I would hope in this day and age it would win you as many friends as enemies so its probably not that risky. It is also unfortunately probably much easier when you’re male because of the invalid but still common differential assumptions about commitment to work life when you have a family.

    For the most part my attitude during interviews was that decision making was some mystical, chaotic, non-predictable process going on inside a black box and it was more or less impossible to predict what was going to win or lose me votes, so I would just try to remain true to myself within certain rational boundaries.

    On the other hand, if I had an academic spouse and would be looking for accommodations, I cannot imagine a scenario where I would volunteer that specific aspect until I had the offer in hand (even to the point of giving a borderline rudely nebulous answer if asked – e.g. “nothing is certain yet”).

    So it depends on a lot of things. And I am NOT saying it is always or even mostly the right choice. But voluntary pre-disclosure is not an option I ever hear discussed and for the right question/person/situation it can be a good way to go.

    (None of this is to take away from the fact that if you don’t volunteer it it is not their business)

    • Yes, I can see how, if the info might help (or at least not hurt) putting it on the table would make sense. But, as you say, whether or not the info might help or hurt will depend very much on the circumstances. I agree with you that it is not something I would do (or did do) with an academic spouse.

  7. I think it is important to inform the graduate students also on how important interviews are. Most graduate students don’t fully understand how academia works and how it is just as important for the University/Department to sell themselves to the candidate and the candidate is selling themselves to the University/Department.

    For example in a recent search at our University the candidates had lunch with the graduate students. During this lunch the grad students spent the majority of their time ranting on one of the least attractive aspects of our University. Clearly grad students (and everyone) should be honest and not with hold information, but at the same time you need to accentuate the positives and not use this time to lash out on your frustrations.

    • I’ve seen this (grad students dumping in a meeting with a candidate) happen in more than one search so you’re not alone!

      I think you’re probably right that this is a great opportunity to do some professional development with graduate students, but of course that involves a faculty member taking time.

      Just out of curiosity, did your search have a graduate student representative? – I’ve seen this problem much less often when the grad students are bought into the search. Not saying there should or shouldn’t be a grad student representative on the committee, but just curious if my experience generalizes.

      Conversely – as a candidate, I always ask to meet with a group of grad students if its not already on the schedule because it is by far the best way to: a) get the dirt on what isn’t working about the place, and b) find out a lot of inside scoop on what the committee is really looking for!

      • Probably worse than listening to grad students dump dirt is if as a candidate you run into some sharp-but-mouthy student who disagrees with your passing philosophical remarks early in your job seminar, and who takes the opportunity of the grad student lunch to push you hard on on your views on “causality” and if/how ecologists ought to test causal hypotheses.

        I mean, I imagine that that would be worse. It’s not as if I would actually know. It’s totally not as if I was ever involved in anything like that as a grad student or anything. Nope. Never. 🙂

      • A grad student was on the search committee, but I guess that didn’t impact how much the grad students in general were involved in the search / knowing how searches work.

  8. Apologies for my naivete, but what, if any, are “wrong” or “right” answers to illegal questions posed by people with devious intentions? Is being single the optimal answer? Married but with no intention of ever having kids? Or is the wrong answer simply having an academic spouse? Or is it bad to have too many kids? Should those of us who are married leave our wedding bands in a drawer at home when we go on interviews and act cagey upon being asked any personal questions? It’s hard for me to imagine not answering truthfully and being proud of my family, but at the same time it would be good to know if or when this could work against me.

    • I take it by “devious intentions”, you mean the questioner has a certain answer in mind that they want to hear, in which case you want to try to give them that answer in order to maximize your chances of being hired?

      I don’t think your question is a naive one at all. But I’m not sure it has a good answer, at least not given the way you’ve framed it. As the post and commenters have noted, part of the reason “illegal” questions can be awkward is that you don’t always know, or can’t reliably guess, the intentions of the questioner. Answering in a cagey way, or declining to answer, or even lying, might be in your interests if the questioner is, say, trying to avoid hiring someone with an academic spouse. But being cagey/declining to answer/lying might seem aloof or unfriendly if the questioner is sincerely just trying to be helpful, and might even be against your interests if, say, the questioner sees a candidate with an academic spouse as an opportunity rather than a problem. Hence Meg’s emphasis on the importance of ensuring that these questions don’t get asked in the first place, so that the candidate isn’t placed in the awkward position of trying to guess the questioner’s motives, or guess whether one’s answer will be passed on to someone with ulterior motives.

      You could take Brian’s approach and volunteer information about your family situation (or just happily and honestly answer any questions you get about it), on the grounds that you don’t want to work somewhere where others would hold your family situation against you. And on the grounds that it’s impossible to predict whether volunteering information about your family situation will help or hurt your chances of getting the job, so you might as well just be true to yourself and volunteer the information.

    • I think you raise a very valid point. The “illegal” questions certainly represent a spectrum. For example asking to know somebody’s race or sexual preference asked say during a phone interview when the committee is still more weeding out candidates than trying to recruit the handful that might be chosen has no imaginable good reason for asking. Trying to find out if a woman is pregnant or has plans for family is equally always invalid (and the basis of much discrimination). And there a lot of search committees who won’t interview candidates if they know for sure their spouse would be asking for a job at the same university (even though this is not legal).

      But asking if somebody is married or has school age kids is probably meant in a positive helpful – or at least casual harmless – way more often than not. But – and here’s the key point – it is unrelated to deciding who is the best person for the job and COULD be used in a discriminatory fashion (and it is very asymmetric in that many old-school people treat it as worse if a woman has kids than if a man has kids – even if this is based in a very flawed view of the modern family). For this reason, in the US and it would seem from the comments several other countries, such questions as part of a large law to prevent discrimination are made illegal (and nearly everybody serving on a faculty search committee is trained to know this). And I think this is a good thing.

      However, as I noted in my comment above, there is nothing that makes it wrong or illegal for the candidate to disclose these things if they wish to do so. And indeed, I and it sounds like you, would disclose basic family status. But there are other things I wouldn’t disclose because they are completely irrelevant to the job and often discriminated against (e.g. I actually go to church which is frowned upon by the large majority of academics but I know that is a relatively minor example compared to the discrimination some people face). The key is that it is my choice and I can assess how much harm it could do me and not disclose it if I want. That is a win for merit and a blow against discrimination.

      • Your point about a “spectrum” of illegal questions is a good one Brian. In my comment, I confess I was thinking only about questions as one end of the spectrum, and thinking of those questions as being asked at a stage when there might well be innocent reasons for asking them. And as you say, the ideal situation–the situation that the law in many places is designed to produce–is one in which the candidate is the one who gets to choose what to disclose.

    • Excellent questions. I would say that the answer differs for men vs. women. For women, people with devious intentions (to borrow your phrase!) would generally prefer a single woman — women having kids is viewed as too much of a detriment to their productivity. Also, women are fairly likely to be married to other academics, and working out two positions can be a hassle. So, yes, some women I know do go as far as removing their wedding rings when interviewing.

      For men, having a family makes people view them as MORE committed to work (presumably this is related to the stereotype of the man being the breadwinner for the family). So, for a man to reveal he has a family would tend to make it more likely that he would be viewed as hireable.

      (Note: Correll et al. (2007, American Journal of Sociology) focused on the effects of gender and parenthood. It’s interesting and depressing.)

      All of the above doesn’t mean that you should or should not answer questions a particular way. But it certainly provides food for thought when considering how to answer questions.

    • Jeremy et al, I’ve been thinking about a mostly unrelated topic that I think could possibly make for an interesting post for one of you to write. Or, maybe Jeremy can refer me to 3 or 4 posts that already address this topic! Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about the transition from postdoc(s) to a faculty position (can you guess what career stage I’m at? :). I feel like I have had a positive postdoc experience and that I’ve developed a nice body of work that will carry over into a fruitful research program should I get hired. My potential to succeed, however, is certainly owed in part to the fact that I have received thoughtful mentoring and have been in a position to develop a number of potentially long-term collaborations. My experience has been great, and I feel very lucky. However, I imagine that others’ experiences differ. I get the impression that in many cases postdocs are hired to perform some short-term project to fulfill work proposed in a funded grant, and that their advisors are more interested in seeing that the work is performed than they are about facilitating opportunities for their postdocs to succeed later on as independent PIs. For instance, if someone does a postdoc working in a rather limited system or on a particular data set, once they have completed that work how are they supposed to carry that over into their own long-term research program? This certainly requires much initiative on the part of the postdoc, but their ability to do so also depends quite a bit on how much freedom and opportunity they are afforded. I would venture to guess that one reason the cadre of NCEAS postdocs was so successful at landing jobs is that they had the freedom to develop their own ideas and substantial opportunities to network. So, what I’m wondering is, how important is the nature of one’s postdoc position to one’s ability to eventually succeed in becoming an independent PI? Or is this determined more by the individual and their ingenuity, work ethic, etc than it is by their circumstances? Even more so, how disruptive is doing multiple postdocs to one’s ability to build momentum and develop a cohesive and compelling research program? At this point, I don’t think the answers to these questions will have very much impact on my career, but I imagine they could be of interest to those considering their first (or second or third) postdoc.

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  11. I am about to go into my first interview experience for a TT position and am 8 months pregnant. The Search Committee didn’t know this when they called to tell me I had been short-listed and they wanted me to fly to the University for the interview (I’m on a different continent). I opted for the pre-disclosure strategy – and informed them of my pregnancy up front. I assured them I was ok to fly and feeling good. Obviously they were going to find this out when I showed up in person, and I felt like it might be better for the Committee to be able to discuss the ramifications of this ahead of time. Will see how my strategy plays out this week! But obviously I don’t have the luxury of lying about or diverting questions about children and pregnancy :).

    • Yeah, in that case it does seem like it makes sense to tell them ahead of time! One thing about traveling at that stage of pregnancy is that it makes it easy for them to find you in the airport. 😉

      Glad you’re feeling well, and good luck with the interview!

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