Inappropriate Interview Questions and How to Handle Them
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal and state laws, it is illegal to discriminate against applicants on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, citizenship, disability, and age. Some states have added additional protected categories, including sexual orientation and marital status. As discussed further below, all employers participating in YLS interview programs are required to comply with the Law School’s Nondiscrimination Policy. To avoid running afoul of these regulations, interviewers should avoid questions about:
• Race, ethnicity, or color
• Gender or sex
• Country of national origin or birth place
• Marital or family status or pregnancy
For example, the following questions are likely inappropriate for a job interview:
• Are you a U.S. citizen? Which language is your native tongue? Interviewers may ask if you can, upon hire, provide proof of legal right to work in the United States. They may ask about language fluency if it is relevant to job performance.
• Where did you grow up? Interviewers should not inquire about where you live, what type of housing you occupy, or whether you rent or own.
• What year did you graduate from high school? Interviewers should avoid questions that may indicate your age.
• What does your wife do for a living? Are you planning to have a family? When? Do you have children or child-care responsibilities? These questions could be discriminatory, especially if asked just of women. Interviewers may ask if you can work the normal hours of the job, whether you are available for overtime (if overtime is a requirement of the position), and whether you have obligations that would prevent you from business travel.
• Are you available for work on Saturdays or Sundays? Will you need personal time for particular religious holidays? Interviewers should not ask any questions about religion. If Saturday or Sunday is a required workday, interviewers may ask you if you will have a problem working on those days.
• Do you have a visual, speech, or hearing disability? Interviewers should avoid questions or comments about an applicant’s disability. They should not ask about medical conditions, past hospitalizations, past medical, psychiatric, or psychological treatment. They should not ask about prescription drugs or medications or the number of days you were sick during previous employment. They may ask whether you are able to perform the job, with or without reasonable accommodation, if you have an obvious disability or when all applicants are asked the same exact question. Also, if you have an obvious disability or you volunteer that you are disabled, interviewers may ask if you will need a reasonable accommodation.
• Have you ever used illegal drugs? The only allowable question relating to current or past drug or alcohol use is, "Do you currently use illegal drugs?"
• Have you ever been arrested? Interviewers should not ask if you have been arrested; they may investigate your criminal record if relevant to a particular position.
YLS and NALP Interviewing Policies
YLS Placement Policies and Regulations (available in CDO’s Introduction to Career Development Guide, Appendix D) go beyond Title VII in prohibiting discrimination on the basis of age, color, handicap or disability, ethnic or national origin, race, religion, religious creed, gender (including discrimination taking the form of sexual harassment), marital, parental or veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or the prejudice of clients. Employers participating in Yale Law School's interview programs are required to agree to the Law School's Nondiscrimination Policy when they request an interview slot. Additionally, the Association of Legal Career Professionals (NALP) requires that all of its members (which include all law schools and most large law firms) adhere to its Principles and Standards in recruiting at law schools. Section IV.E. of the Principles and Standards states:
Employers should use valid, job related criteria when evaluating candidates.
1. Hiring decisions must be based solely on bona fide occupational qualifications.
2. Employers should carefully avoid conduct of any kind during the interview and selection process that acts or appears to act to discriminate unlawfully or in a way contrary to the policies of a particular institution.
3. Factors in candidates' backgrounds that have no predictive value with respect to employment performance, such as scores on examinations required for admission to academic institutions, should not be relied upon by employers in the hiring process.
If you experience any issues with inappropriate questions while interviewing, please speak to Assistant Dean Kelly Voight or another counselor in CDO. Within the bounds of law, the information you share with CDO is confidential and we will work to resolve the matter based on your wishes. We have a range of formal and informal options, including talking through the situation and discussing ways to respond to similar situations going forward, or having CDO report the interviewer's conduct to his/her employer. By sharing this information with CDO, you will enable us to prepare future students for interviews and to provide meaningful feedback to employers regarding our expectations for interviewer conduct.
In addition, every academic year, the Dean appoints a faculty member to serve as an Anti-discrimination/Anti-harassment officer at the Law School. Each Yale School and Residential College has a senior administrator assigned as a Title IX coordinator to resolve complaints and address issues of gender-based discrimination and sexual misconduct within that school. At this time, the Law School's Anti-discrimination/Anti-harassment officer and Title IX coordinator is Professor Claire Priest (firstname.lastname@example.org). Students with questions about or complaints of harassment or discrimination are also encouraged to speak with her.
Advice to Students During an Interview
In addition to having a range of options for dealing with inappropriate interviewer behavior after the interview, you also have a range of options for responding during the interview itself. There are at least four ways to respond:
1. You may answer the question as asked without any reference to the inappropriateness of the question;
2. You may attempt to determine and answer any potentially legitimate concern that underlie the question and ignore the improper question itself, or otherwise pivot to a positive statement (e.g., a question about your parental status may be an attempt to assess your availability to travel);
3. You may respond by asking “I am not sure why you are asking me that question. Can you rephrase or clarify so I have a better understanding of how this relates to the position for which I am applying?”;
4. You may refuse to answer, point out to the employer that the question is illegal at worst or inappropriate at best, and leave the interview.
Of these options, the first two are probably the least likely to raise any concern on the part of the interviewer and thus most effective if you remain interested in receiving a callback invitation or offer from the employer. Remember that one of the skills most lawyers develop is the ability to turn a negative into a positive. Practice that skill by steering a conversation away from an illegal or discriminatory area toward a topic that further demonstrates your ability to handle the position. It is also useful to keep in mind that interviewers are not always experienced at interviewing, and, even though they are lawyers, many are not familiar with employment law. Also, their views may not reflect the attitudes of the majority of attorneys at their office. Ultimately, it is up to you to determine your continued interest in the employer given the interviewer’s conduct.
-Updated July 2014