The Best Way to Answer an Illegal Interview Question

The interview is proceeding swimmingly.  Your potential Boss is talking about the exciting growth ahead for the company and all the places the team will travel to set up operations. Then he asks, “So, tell me, Sarah – do you have children?”

Is being a Mom relevant to your ability to be effective in the job? No.  So, how do you proceed without damaging your chances of getting hired?

Assuming the question you’ve been asked is not egregious and doesn’t change your desire to pursue the role, let’s start with the worst way to handle it. Responding with, “That’s an illegal question and it’s none of your business if I have kids,” will immediately put up a barrier between you and the Interviewer, essentially ending your chances of being hired. Companies associate terms like “illegal” with “lawsuit” and prefer to avoid that possibility at all costs. So, despite your qualifications, your chances of being asked back significantly decrease.

The best way to handle the situation is to assume positive intent, recognizing that many line managers hire one, two, maybe five people each year. They’re not full-time Recruiters or trained HR professionals, so although they should have basic interview training, most don’t. In many cases, being asked an illegal question is a mistake, and one the Interviewer realizes about a millisecond after it spills from his mouth. If you want the job and recognize the question is likely a faux pas, here are two strategies you can use:

“I think you may be concerned about my ability to travel, which I understand is a key part of this role.  Actually, the extensive travel is one of the reasons I’m interested in this position since it will give me the chance to use my Spanish and Portuguese fluency to help the team succeed.” 


“I’m sorry, I’m not quite sure I understand your question. Are you wondering if I’m okay with traveling?”

If a job has a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) such as an ability to lift 40lbs or being a male to model menswear, Interviewers can legally use these factors to select candidates. In the case above, a more appropriate question would be, “Do you have responsibilities that will interfere with specific job requirements such as traveling?”  However, humans are imperfect and Hiring Managers are often untrained.

If the situation offends you enough to walk away, do it. Otherwise, don’t let a tactless remark stand in your way of landing the position.

Happy hunting!

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