Living and working in a pandemic has required everyone to adapt in one way or another. Unfortunately, online chatter and feedback from job seekers is revealing that some employers cross the line in how they’re adapting interview questions to the current environment. Illegal questions about age and children are popping up across the spectrum and being asked of everyone from recent college graduates to executives.
Let’s first approach the issue from employers’ perspectives. Hiring an employee is an expensive business process. Hiring the wrong employee is exponentially more costly. To hedge their bets, employers are trying to obtain personal information about you that they believe will help in their hiring decision. Covid has disrupted their recruiting processes: interviews are primarily virtual now; and, additional layers of interviews have been added to make up for the absence of in-person meeting time. Because of the prevalence of remote-work policies, employers also want to know they’ve chosen someone who is tech-savvy and won’t be distracted while working from home. This has caused frustration for companies of all sizes, resulting in what appears to be a conscious willingness of some recruiters and hiring managers to ask questions they otherwise know are illegal.
Remember: it is ILLEGAL for a company to discriminate against any job applicant on the basis of age, race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or disability.
So, what should you do if you’re asked an illegal question? The answer depends almost entirely on how badly you want the job. The direct approach will let them know that you know the question is illegal: “It’s illegal to ask me or any applicant that question, and I’m not comfortable answering it.” Unfortunately, this response, while 100% true and protective of your rights, is accusatory in nature and probably guarantees you won’t be hired.
If you want the job, the best approach is to answer the question and immediately pivot to a statement that addresses their underlying concern.
“How old are you?”
Understand that by asking this question, the interviewer wants to know if you’re too young (i.e., inexperienced and require training) or too old (i.e., lacking motivation or simply trying to collect a paycheck for a few more years).
You don’t have to provide a specific number. Say something like “mid-twenties” or “early fifties” and immediately address the relevant concerns. If you’re worried about being perceived as too young, hit on some soft skills you know you’re strong in, like organizational skills or the ability to mentor others. Highlight relevant coursework or honors from college, and let them know your technical proficiencies. If you don’t have a family or dependents at home, let them know that working nights and weekends is possible when big projects demand it. On other hand if you’re worried about being perceived as too old, convey your motivation and adaptability with real-life examples. One of the most powerful verbs for a resume or an interview is “orchestrate.” Tell them about a project or initiative you orchestrated, how it contributed to the company’s goals, and if you managed or coached others in the process. Priority any examples where your efforts directly contributed to reducing costs or expenses. Finally, if you’ve successfully navigated previous national crises, leverage that experience in your response.
“Are you financially supporting anyone at home?”
This question is a loyalty and reliability play. The interviewer wants to ascertain your likelihood to be distracted from work and whether or not you’ll be on board with returning to the office if their remote work policy ceases. Respond honestly about the current state of your home life and describe safeguards you’ve put in place to mitigate distractions during the workday and how you plan to accommodate things if there’s a return to the office. It’s okay to admit facing a challenge at the beginning of the pandemic, especially if the context you provide can illustrate how you overcame the adjustment and implemented changes to address the challenges!
“Do you have children? How many and what are their ages?”
This is the non-filtered version of the previous example. The best approach is to be direct and convey your commitment to remaining focused on work and completing projects on time. This far into the pandemic, you should be able to describe solutions you’ve put in place to adapt to being a working parent. Give examples of past successes with working remotely and/or being trusted to complete a project with little direct guidance. If you provided references on your application, remember that they’re likely to be contacted. It’s possible your former or current boss will be asked about your reliability and motivation. So be honest!
The other motive of this question relates to the stability of your home environment. They want to know how likely it is for kids to show up on screen during virtual meetings or to be heard in the background of calls with clients. Don’t let them form their own opinion! Explain how you’ve not only thought these things through, but have implemented solutions to keep the household stable while you’re working.