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How to Handle 5 Awkward Interview Questions

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Job interviews can be nerve-wracking. Whether it’s worrying you have something stuck in your teeth, or being afraid of drawing a blank after an easy question, there’s a lot to prepare yourself for before you get up and put on your suit. One thing to prepare yourself for is what to do if the interviewer’s questions turn personal.

While most businesses and organizations handle job interviews professionally, it’s possible that you may come up against questions that are inappropriate or actually illegal due to anti-discrimination legislation. Here are a few common question categories employers shouldn’t be asking, and tips for handling them gracefully so as not to ruin the good impression you’re making.

“How Old Are You?”

Questions about your age are off-limits because they potentially set you up to be discriminated against due to your age. That’s illegal. (It’s also why you shouldn’t put your age, or birth year on your resume.)

Both older and younger applicants can diplomatically avoid this question by explaining your experience in the field, along with other activities you take part in that are professionally-related, such as a trade or industry group you belong to.

“Do You Have Children (Or Do You Plan To)?”

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act and Pregnancy Discrimination Act, U.S. employers can’t discriminate against candidates based on their parental status (or, in the case of younger women, in their ability to become pregnant). If you’re asked a question like this, point out politely that employment law says you aren’t required to provide information about family or marital status.

Then ask a clarifying question: “Are you concerned about what my availability will be, or whether I can travel for work?” Fears that an applicant will be inflexible in scheduling are usually at the back of questions about children.

“What Religion Do You Practice?”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal for any employer to discriminate against someone due to their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, along with several other characteristics. You can answer this question by saying you prefer to keep your religious beliefs private.

Again, a clarifying question about what the interviewer is really concerned about may help: the religion question sometimes comes up if an employer is worried you’ll never be available to work on a Sunday or on a Friday night if your religious practice forbids it. Explain when you’re available to work, and leave it at that. “Is English Your First Language?”

U.S. employers do need to verify that all job applicants are legally cleared to work in the U.S. before hiring them. But they can’t discriminate against someone due to their national origin or ethnic background. So questions about how you learned to speak English, where you’re from, or even where you got that charming accent, are all off-limits.

You can answer this question by saying, “I speak and write English fluently, along with (language x).” If you think the employer’s concern is about your legal status, ask them if they want to know whether you are authorized to work in the U.S., and tell them that you are.

“Do You Drink Or Smoke?”

Generally, an employee’s use of a legal product when not on the clock or on company premises shouldn’t be a concern of employers. Interviewers may reasonably be concerned about whether a smoker will try to take extra breaks, but if they have a solid break policy in place, it shouldn’t need to come up in an interview.

How to answer it: “I don’t use tobacco or alcohol while I’m at work.” A related question that may come up is if an employer asks for access to your social media accounts, such as Facebook. You can politely explain that it’s against Facebook’s terms of use to allow anyone access to your account. And make sure your public profile is squeaky-clean.

Employment laws vary across state – such as employer access to social media and social media passwords – and frequently change.

Students and alumni of AIU should connect with the AIU Career Services department to learn more about the services provided and for help with resume writing and interview tips.

This article is presented by American InterContinental University, a provider of career-focused degree programs. Students can also study on our Virtual Campus at AIU Online. Find out more at