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Tricky Questions

Are They Allowed To Ask That?

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

man leaving interview

— Getty Images/OJO Images

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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