Know Your Options: Inappropriate Job Interview Questions

When interviewing for your dream job, it can feel counterintuitive to not answer every question asked of you. However, some seemingly innocuous questions are actually quite inappropriate (and sometimes illegal) when asked during a job interview. Regardless of intent, here is a guide on how to handle these types of questions.

Know Your Options: Inappropriate Job Interview Questions

Interviews Are For Talking About Qualifications 

The general legalities as they pertain to job interviews are: anything that’s asked should directly correlate to your qualification for the position. 

The laws are put in place to protect interviewees from discriminatory and unrelated questions for the job. In some instances, there may be mandatory qualifications (which are legal). These are called Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications (BFOQs). The BFOQs include questions based on age, sex, race, origin and religious beliefs. They may seem out of line to ask at any time, but given the job context, they make sense to be included in some interviews. For instance, asking your age is generally not permitted, but may be admissible if your job requires you to be a certain age.

Although questions about your family, religious beliefs, etc. may seem like moments of rapport with your interviewer, be aware that they may unfairly influence your hiring manager (regardless of your qualifications). 

Knowing What’s Off Limits

Outside of the BFOQs, here’s a list of inappropriate subjects during an interview:

  • Age
  • Marital Status/Family
  • Disabilities
  • Race or Ethnicity
  • Gender / Sexual Orientation
  • Religious Beliefs
  • Birthplace, Nationality, or Ancestral history
  • Salary history (this is restricted in some areas—check within your state and city)

How to Deal With Illegal Questions

Think of a way to work around the questions without dismissing them entirely. 

If you can think and act quickly, you might try this approach. For instance, if asked “How old are you?”, you might allow your answer to simultaneously be vague and also redirect towards something more along the lines of your skills and qualifications. “I’m on the younger end of the typical age of people in my position. But my work history more than makes up for that.” If your interviewer presses for a more in-depth answer, you might want to try another approach.

Avoid a direct answer and continue the conversation. 

This is a difficult balance to master during an interview. The goal is to deflect the interviewer from continuing with that line of questioning and get back on track with qualification questions. You’ll need to know how to signal to the interviewer that this question is inappropriate without insinuating that they did so intentionally. 

Refuse to answer and end the interview. 

Keep in mind that this is always an option for you. You do not have to answer any questions involving the above list. And especially if you feel uncomfortable or notice that the majority of questions being asked are off-topic. Also, you are interviewing the company as well. If your first impression is someone making you feel uncomfortable, then perhaps this company isn’t a good culture fit for you.

Flip the Question.

If you are unsure about how to handle a question, you can always answer with a generic response, “I’m not sure. I’m mainly focused on growing my career.” 

If your interviewer keeps pushing you to answer inappropriate questions after you’ve deflected once, you might ask them how that particular question is related to your job. If they don’t have an answer for you, then they shouldn’t have asked you in the first place.


It’s important not to assume malicious intent when an inappropriate question has been asked. But make sure you have given yourself all the tools you need should this ever happen to you.

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