I once worked with the vice president of my company, who happened to be an attorney. He was also an HR nightmare. While he was very much aware of what he should not ask during an interview, he took great pleasure in purposely throwing in inappropriate questions.
This vice president would say things like, “Lisa is going to flip when I ask you this—how old are you?” Did I mention I was sitting with him interviewing the candidate when he did this? My blood pressure just went up recalling the incident. Thankfully, for the company, that interviewee, and others he peppered with improper questions, never filed a complaint.
While Mr. Vice-President-Attorney willfully asked inappropriate interview questions, there are others who do it innocently. A student in one of my human resources classes recently shared with me his personal experience.
A young lady came to his place of employment to interview for an internship. His boss was going to be delayed so he asked him to start the interview and he would be in shortly. During the conversation my student asked the interviewee if she had any siblings.
She replied, “You can’t ask me that, it is unethical.”
While I don’t think the question was unethical, it was probably irrelevant to the internship.
In that type situation I would suggest saying something such as, “I am not sure how that ties in with the position, could you clarify that for me?”
How should you handle an interview question(s) that you know you are not supposed to be asked in an interview?
Rebecca Mazin, co-author of the HR Answer Book cautions about pointing out that a question is inappropriate. This might put the interviewer on the defensive. Instead, she suggests trying to deflect the question or "answer without answering."
For example, if an interviewer asks if you have children you might answer, "Family is very important to me but I understand my work obligations and am prepared to commit the time necessary to complete my projects."
Rebecca also pointed out interviewees should be careful with the questions they ask. For instance, it is not uncommon to notice pictures on someone’s desk and ask "are those your children?" By doing this you have now opened the door for the question to be asked of you.
Remember, there is nothing that says you cannot answer a question. Use your best judgment in a given situation.