Although legal employers should know better, sometimes an interviewer may ask a questionable question. In this era of heightened sensitivity to inappropriate language or actions, interviewers generally are more careful, but there may be an unintentional slip-up. When this occurs, what is the best way to handle the situation? In all instances, it is best to pause a moment and take a breath, NOT become defensive, and attempt to determine the motivation of the interviewer. If you can find a legitimate purpose behind the question, respond with information that relates to performance of the job for which you are interviewing. This Hot Tip will provide some examples.
MARITAL STATUS/CHILDREN -- It is illegal to ask about marital status and children per se. However, it is likely that the interviewer is exploring whether you have other commitments, which could interfere with your duties (and your ability to bill an astronomical numbers of hours!). Assure the interviewer that you are ready, willing and able to perform all the duties of your job, and that you would be available to travel, work evenings and weekends, and do whatever is necessary to fulfill the requirements of the position.
AGE -- Although it is improper to ask a candidate's age, if you are lucky enough to look very young, the interviewer may be concerned that clients will not take you seriously. Respond by emphasizing your experience and giving examples of where you have handled significant responsibility and worked directly with clients. If you are an older candidate, assure the interviewer that you have no problem working with and for attorneys and clients of all ages, including those younger than yourself. Emphasize that long hours and hard work do not scare you, and give examples from your recent employment history. Highlight your "real world" experiences from a previous career that can be an asset to the prospective employer.
POLITICAL, RELIGIOUS, SOCIAL AFFILIATIONS -- Perhaps the interviewer is merely commenting on information noted on your resume, or making small talk to break the ice. Unless relevant to the position, these questions technically are improper, but a candidate should use judgment in answering. In these increasingly bottom-line oriented times, employers are interested in a candidate's ability to generate business. An interviewer may be attempting to assess the extent of a candidate's potential rainmaking connections. With this in mind, it is best to respond to these questions by emphasizing organizations and affiliations through which you have developed contacts or potentially could do so in the future.
NATIONALITY AND CITIZENSHIP -- While it is illegal for an interviewer to ask about a candidate's citizenship, national origin, or "native tongue", it is appropriate to ask whether a candidate is authorized to work in the US, and to ask about language ability if it is relevant to work performance. For some legal positions, foreign language ability is valuable for attracting or servicing a diverse client base. It is to your benefit to emphasize your language capabilities because it will set you apart from your competition. Sometimes interviewers may comment on your accent or information listed on your resume as a way to break the ice. In those situations, use your judgment in responding. If you believe that the improper question was asked in order to determine your immigration status, however, you may respond by stating that, if offered a position, you would be happy to provide the appropriate documentation.
DISABILITIES -- It is illegal to ask questions regarding a disability or to discriminate on the basis of a disability. However, it is appropriate to ask whether the candidate is able to perform the essential functions of the job, based on the job description. Moreover, it is appropriate to ask whether the candidate will require accommodations to perform the essential functions of the job. An interviewer may be concerned about whether any disability or illness will affect attendance and, therefore, performance. If you have an obvious disability, assure the interviewer that you are very capable of performing the required elements of the job for which you are interviewing, and give examples of your past success. Be matter of fact and informative regarding any accommodation you may require.
Once you ascertain what the interviewer's concerns are, you can address them, and use that opportunity to your advantage by emphasizing your strong points. If, however, you believe that a question is offensive, illegal, or insulting, you have the option not to answer it. You may want to (diplomatically) counter with a question of your own, such as, "I'm sorry, I don't understand how that relates to my ability to do the job. Could you please elaborate?" One hopes that the interviewer will catch the indiscretion, and rephrase the question in a more appropriate manner. If this tactic does not work, and the interviewer continues in an offensive manner, you may respectfully decline to answer the question, and state that you believe that the question has no relevance to your ability to do the job. In conclusion, when asked a questionable question, judgment, grace and humor go a long way in turning a potentially negative situation into a success.