As a job seeker, it’s common to run into situations that can be awkward and uncomfortable during interviews. No two people ever interview candidates the same, so it can be challenging to know what to expect. One of the worst experiences is when the person on the other side of the hiring desk starts asking inappropriate interview questions that border on discrimination or even harassment.

How should you tactfully deal with such a scenario, while maintaining your privacy and making a positive impression? What about salvaging an interview once an inappropriate question has been asked? All of this depends on the nature of the question, how it comes about, and how you, as a candidate, respond. There are some key ways you can prepare for an interview and tackle even the more difficult interview questions.

Identifying inappropriate interview questions

First, lets understand what could be happening here, and if your concerns are warranted. Some interview questions can seem to be inappropriate to any job seeker. There are some questions that are perfectly legal to ask, such as:

  • Do you have any limitations that could prevent you from performing the duties of this job?
  • Do you require any accommodations to perform the job you are interested in?
  • Can you safely lift, bend, stand, sit, for long periods of time for this job?
  • Have you ever been fired or terminated or let go from a job in the past?
  • Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
  • Tell me more about yourself?
  • Why did you decide to apply for a job here?
  • Why should our company hire you for this job?
  • Would you share a time that you experienced a conflict at work, and what did you do?
  • How would your current or past co-workers or supervisors describe your performance?

The above questions may seem too personal, but they are common questions that are asked during interviews and are perfectly legal. Why are they okay to ask? The questions directly relate to the requirements of employment. For example, a question that asks if someone can lift or stand on the job simply tells the hiring manager that a candidate is physically able to perform the requirements of the job without causing himself harm. An interview question that is a staple of most companies is regarding any criminal history of a candidate. This can determine if a candidate poses any kind of risk to the business or other employees (such as being convicted of a violent crime).

Now, let’s talk about interview questions that are truly inappropriate. This is not a complete list, but you will immediately notice the difference. Workforce Magazine provides a more in-depth explanation of illegal interview questions.

  • Are you married or do you plan to get married?
  • What year did you graduate high school? (age)
  • Do you have children or do you plan to have children?
  • You have an interesting accent – where were you born?
  • How long have you been disabled? What caused it?
  • Do you go to church, temple, or synagogue here in town?
  • I see you did not work for a few years, what were you doing then?
  • Would you like to have lunch with me sometime?
  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • We usually hire men for this kind of work; why do you want this job?
  • Do you consider yourself to be a healthy person in general?
  • Are you working on losing weight or improving your appearance?

None of these questions have any place in a job interview. They violate a number of employment laws, because they relate to personal status, such as age, sexual orientation, marital or parenting status, disability, race, national origin, and other protected classes. They do not have anything to do with the job requirements or employment eligibility.

What to do when asked an inappropriate interview question

If you happen to encounter an interview question that falls into a category of being inappropriate, it can be unnerving at first. One the one hand, you want to be viewed as someone who is eager to work with others and ready to tackle anything; on the other hand you don’t need to provide an answer to an inappropriate question that could be used illegally in a hiring decision. What are some tactful ways to handle this, while still coming out on top?

Request clarification of the question

Is it possible that you miss-heard the interview question? Maybe it’s unclear or sounds like something you should not answer. A professional way to determine if you are dealing with an inappropriate question is to ask the interviewer to repeat the question in relationship to the job. You could say something like, “Pardon me, am I hearing you correctly? Did you mean to ask me if I am married, and how does this impact the job I am here interviewing for please?”

Give a one-word answer

Once the question has been asked, it’s too late to retract it. The interviewer may either be inexperienced or not aware of this error. Take a deep breath, and then give as simple an answer as possible. In some cases, a one-word answer will suffice. Don’t volunteer any more information than necessary, but be polite and smile.

Revisit a previous question

Another choice you have is to revert back to another interview question that you want to provide more information for. This is a way to change the subject, and fast. Think of something you can add to a previous answer that makes you look more thoughtful. You could say something like,” Oh, could we talk about [subject] from previously? I wanted to elaborate on that point more.”


The only exception to the above rules is if you are asked an inappropriate interview question that is outright offensive or harassing in nature. For example, being asked what your race is or if you would like to go on a date. In this case, it’s prudent to simply excuse yourself from the interview room and leave.

Many times, people who are not skilled at interviewing can mess up. Try to remember that the inappropriate interview question could just be an honest mistake. Unless it falls under the final rule, just try to move onto another subject.

Tess C. Taylor, CCC, SHRM-CP is the founder and CEO of HR Knows, a career coaching and content development firm in New York. She is a seasoned and certified human resource professional and career coach, having worked in the software, health care, and service sectors for nearly 20 years. She is an award-winning author of ‘Corporate Wellness: 30 Days to a Wildly Successful Health and Wellness Fair‘ (free on Kindle) and has been featured in, ADP Thrive, Dale Carnegie, HR Magazine, HR Gazette, and US News.

Feel free to follow Tess on any of her social media channels for more career and business advice.