Q&A: What Questions are Off-Limits at a Job Interview?

Question: I’m aware that questions about race and religion are illegal at job interviews. What are some other inappropriate or illegal questions that I should look out for?

Answer: Despite efforts emphasised by our own Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices, some “illegal” questions are still being sneaked into many job interviews. A seemingly innocuous “Tell us more about yourself,” for instance, can lead to interviewees volunteering information that is otherwise illegal to acquire directly, such as their age, race, marital status and sexual orientation.

However, since most people really do want the job, odds are that they would avoid saying anything that might jeopardise their chances of getting the job. As such, many interviewers get away with hovering along the lines of asking “illegal” questions, thereby perpetuating the practice of “illegal” interview questions.

Sometimes the interviewer’s intentions are merely harmless attempts at ice breakers to reveal what a person is like and the likelihood of them working with the person in the long run. But harmless or not, unofficial interview questions can be intrusive and abrasive, and may cause discomfort to the candidates. So before you attend your next interview, here are some likely interview questions to look out for:

1. Questions about your age

Such questions fall back on common workplace stereotypes by assuming that younger workers are inexperienced while older ones are inflexible and past their prime. In fact, many brand-conscious companies try to live up to a young and vibrant image, avoiding the employment of older workers.

What you can do about it: As you are not obliged to answer questions about your age other than you are least 16 years old, skirt around the topic by instead sharing your invaluable work experiences and achievements that, ironically, come with age. For the lucky few whose faces defy their real age, play it cool. Your behaviour is also a powerful factor in how others perceive your age.

2. Questions about your family

The purpose of these questions is to single out your lifestyle and marital status; whether you have children and if you have plans for any. Maternity leave can count as a serious drain on company productivity and resources, while family men can be unwilling to put in late hours away from home.

What you can do about it: One’s marital status does not have to be a determinant on one’s capabilities. Many successful businessmen and women juggle a healthy balance between work and family life, and rarely are political figures single. Be honest about it, and share how having a family has contributed greatly to your achievements and outlook on life.

3. Questions about your nationality

Often derived from a person’s looks and accent, information on nationality is illegal to acquire directly. Usually, the purpose of such inquiries is to ascertain whether the person is legally authorised to work for the company.

What you can do about it: Since many jobs require a certain familiarity with the local setting, it is the individual’s responsibility to learn about the country they intend to work in. If any questions allude to your nationality, come out of it with examples of how your exoticness is not directly proportional to your level of ignorance. Try imitating the local way of life and highlight how much you know about Singapore. At any workplace, clear and efficient communication goes a long way.

4. Questions about your gender

Gender has always been a sensitive topic, with men traditionally dominating the upper echelons of management while women are just beginning to enter the foray, albeit in a steady stream. While it is common now to peer inside any corporate boardroom and see a healthy mix of male and female executives, gender stereotyping and chauvinistic attitudes can still prevail, even in the interview room. Questions incriminating one’s sexuality are not unheard of in single-sex dominated workplaces, such as how men are often ridiculed for gravitating towards jobs in nursing and makeup boutiques.

What you can do about it: Stereotypes of women in the workplace include emotions running high where objectivity and fast decisions are required. While emotions cannot exactly be controlled, capability and attitude can. If your interviewers make rude or sexist references, you might want to think twice about wanting to work for that company. You can also explain to them how your difference is a complement rather than a flaw.

At the end of the day, it is better to be honest than defensive, as the latter suggests guilt and self-pity. Employers pick up on such negative feelings, which in turn affect their decisions. No matter what approach you take during the interview, be sure to appear polished and as a candidate worthy of gainful employment.

What are some other "illegal" interview questions you've encountered? Share with us in the comment box below!

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