Illegal Questions

From time to time you may be asked an illegal question. Fortunately, those times are rare, but they do occasionally occur. An illegal question is one that probes into your personal life, beliefs, or background. Federal law forbids employers from discriminating against any person on the basis of sex, age, race, national origin, or religion. Questions that delve into these areas are both inappropriate as well as illegal.

Most interviewers are aware of these questions, and it is indeed the rare occasion when you would be asked a question that is not directly related to the job. However, the interviewer may be new and not aware of the types of questions that can be asked and those that can't be asked. Perhaps he or she is trying to put you in a stressful situation to see how you would react (or over-react). Maybe the interviewer has a predetermined type of candidate in mind and is trying to find someone who matches those parameters without giving thought to the appropriateness of the questions. Or you may be asked inappropriate questions out of sheer ignorance. Although these occasions are uncommon, you need to consider how you might respond if you were asked an illegal question.

In consulting with administrators and professional interviewers around the country, I discovered that there are several schools of thought on this issue. These include the following:

1. You could tell the interviewer that the question is illegal and that you are not going to answer it. While you are certainly within your rights to make just such a response, it may have more negative consequences than you would like. Above all, your response would undoubtedly make the interviewer uncomfortable and would, most certainly, give him or her a negative impression of you. In other words, you may be 100 percent right, but your response would be viewed as 100 percent wrong.

Another school of thought says that you should ignore the illegality of the question and just go ahead and answer it, because you are more interested in the teaching position than you are in the appropriateness of the question asked. In other words, you may decide that the job is much more important than the principle (or principal).

You can simply, respectfully, and politely decline to answer the question. A response such as "I'm somewhat uncomfortable with that question and would prefer not to answer it at this time" is suggested. The problem with this response—even though it is very appropriate—is that it may be seen as defensive and antagonistic, two qualities no principal wants to deal with. Even though the interviewer may be downright stupid to ask an illegal question, you don't want to compound that stupidity by pointing it out to him or her.

You could feign ignorance when asked an illegal question. That is, pretend that you aren't aware of the illegality of the question and, instead, ask for some clarification or explanation. For example, if you were asked, "What political party do you belong to?" you might respond as follows: "I'm not quite sure I understand what you're getting at. Could you please explain to me how my political affiliation might be related to my role as a tenth-grade Spanish teacher?" You've effectively told the interviewer that the question was illegal, and you've also effectively dealt with a stressful situation. Some interviewers might see this in a positive way, but others might take it as a personal "slap in the face." Unfortunately, you'll never know ahead of time.

While there is no hard-and-fast rule on how to deal with illegal questions, it is an issue you need to consider well in advance of any interview. Chances are slim that you will be presented with one of the questions in this chapter, but you need to keep in mind that you are now in a very tight race with a select group of individuals all competing for the same position. How you answer a single illegal question might "tip the scales in your favor," ultimately determining whether or not you are offered the job. In short, prepare for the worst, but give them your best.

After talking with elementary and secondary principals around the United States, most of them suggested that the most appropriate course of action is to turn what may be a negative situation into a positive response. Instead of giving a simple response ("I'm 37 years old!"), elaborate and provide the interviewer with additional information that demonstrates how that particular factor is an asset to your career as a classroom teacher.

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