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Are They Allowed To Ask That?

What you can do when a job interview gets too personal.

En español | You are in a job interview and things are going wonderfully. Then the interviewer starts asking personal questions. Who takes care of your elderly mother all day? What church do you attend?

You're not sure what these questions have to do with the job you're seeking. Should you respond, and how?

Some questions asked by a prospective employer may actually be illegal under federal discrimination laws. Others can be politely brushed aside. Here's a guide, based on a review of labor laws and interviews with employment attorneys.

RED LIGHTS

These questions are clearly illegal in most interviews.

What disabilities or health concerns do you have?

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), it's illegal to ask whether an applicant is disabled, or about the nature or severity of a disability. It is also illegal to require a medical examination before making a job offer. Questions about your last hospitalization and any psychiatry visits are not allowed, except in rare circumstances for sensitive jobs.

It's OK for the interviewer to ask if you have any health problems or disabilities that will interfere with completing specific duties. For example, an employer may ask about your ability to lift 50 pounds if the job requires it.

After a job offer is made, employers are allowed to discuss disabilities—and accommodations required under the ADA.

How old are you?

This question is not generally legal because of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which protects those age 40 and older. There are exceptions for jobs where legal age limits have validity—airline pilots or federal law enforcement jobs that require physical abilities and skills.

Are you a U.S. citizen?

Only certain high-security jobs provide a reason for checking citizenship. However, employers may ask if you are authorized to work in the United States.

YELLOW LIGHTS

These questions, while usually legal, raise the possibility of bias.

What's your religious background?

If the employer uses religion to screen out applicants, this question could be considered discriminatory under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Have you ever been arrested? What convictions are on your record?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, questions about arrests are out of bounds. That's because arrest rates for nonwhites are more than twice as high as for whites, according to FBI statistics. But questions about criminal convictions—particularly felonies— are more often considered allowable, especially in retail jobs and the child care and security fields.

What is your racial background?

Racial and ethnic questions are allowable, but they raise concerns about why the employer needs this information, and you may want to follow up on this in your response.

Are you married? Who takes care of your children and aging mother?

In the area of gender discrimination, "anything related to the ability to balance work and family can be improper— especially if they ask women more than men," said Catherine K. Ruckelshaus, of the National Employment Law Project.

A few states and cities have employment laws protecting people on the basis of marital status, but there's no federal protection.

HOW TO RESPOND

When these questions come up in job interviews, you might respond in a variety of ways. One factor is whether you think the questions reflect a friendly effort to get to know you, or an attempt at discrimination. The options:

1. Answer fully. But focus on information that highlights the strengths and skills you bring to the job. Being responsive lets you maintain a cooperative relationship with the interviewer.

2. Answer as briefly as possible, with no embellishment
. Detroit employment attorney Rudy Huizenga suggests using a little humor to deflect the question. "My mother moved in to take care of me!"

3. Decline to answer. Practice ahead of time saying something like: "You know, when I was at a career counselor's a few weeks ago, they advised me not to answer that question." Or try this approach from Ruckelshaus: "It's hard to answer that question. It feels very personal." But never lie in an interview or on a job application. That could be grounds to fire you.

4. Ask why the question relates to the job being filled, so you can address concerns directly. "Are you trying to find out how much I miss work?" or "Are you trying to find out if I'll fit in with your other workers?" But you should take care not to appear defensive or accusatory.

AFTER THE INTERVIEW

If your answer to an illegal question is used against you in a hiring decision, you may be able to file a complaint against the organization. Keep good notes during the interview or write a summary immediately afterward, suggests Ruckelshaus.

Vickie Elmer writes about business and blogs at WorkingKind.com.

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