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Illegal/Improper Questions

Cornell Law School expects that every student will be treated fairly, professionally, and with courtesy during any on-campus or other interview, and in hiring practices. To that end the institution will vigorously pursue any violations of our rules (with the permission of the student involved.) The text of the equal employment policy which follows is more than words, it is an assurance. If you feel that you have been mistreated by an interviewer, we urge you to discuss the situation with a career counselor.

The Cornell Law School is committed to ensuring equal employment opportunity for all its students and alumni/ae, and is committed to a policy against discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, age, or handicap. The facilities of the Career Services Office may be denied to employers whose behavior contravenes our faculty policy based on the above-listed factors.

Illegal/Offensive Questions: What To Do With Them

How old are you? What is your religion? Do you have children? While inappropriate questions such as these are rare, some interviewers are careless about both the way in which they conduct themselves during interviews, and the questions they ask. What happens when an interviewer goes beyond the bounds of employment related questions and intrudes on your personal beliefs and private life?

There are a wide variety of rules and regulations to protect categories of people who have historically been discriminated against. Federal, state, and sometimes even local laws exist which prohibit employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, childbirth, or abortion), national origin, age (sometimes) sexual orientation (sometimes), and forbid sexual harassment.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits employers from asking whether a student has a disability during the pre-offer stage of the recruiting process. The ADA in effect requires students to decide how and when to disclose their disability to prospective employers. Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees. For assistance in planning a strategy for disclosure, including addressing an apparent disability at an interview, consult with us.

What You May be Asked and Why

Despite the regulations, and the fact that most legal employers provide interview training, there are some broad categories of questions that still get asked. Your resume is fair game, so avoid personal information like age and health. Issues that you bring up can also be questioned by the employer, e.g. child care. The motives for asking these questions vary, and include:

  • Ignorance - an attempt to establish rapport using stereotypes (thinking women want to be complimented on their appearance, for instance)
  • Dissimilar background
  • Stress testing
  • Racism, sexism, homophobia, age bias, etc., both conscious and unconscious
  • Good intentions, bad questions

What Can You do?

The answer to this depends a great deal on how interested you are in the job, and when and how the question is asked. You can:

  • Anticipate problem areas and think about possible responses.
    What issues on your resume or questions of an illegal or problematic nature might you be asked. Some seemingly offensive questions may be permissible if the intent is to ascertain bona fide work qualifications or for legitimate business purposes (like tracking an applicant pool), when the information is not used to determine whom to hire.
  • Find out the perspective from which the question was asked:
    “Could you elaborate on why you are asking that?”
    “I wasn't expecting a question like that. Could you please tell me how it relates to this job?”
    It truly may be a lack of thought, rather than evil intent that has motivated the question. Some clues to the intent are body language and the actual choice of words.
  • Respond to the underlying issue directly.
    For instance, if an interviewer asks you if you are intending to have children, you could avoid answering the question directly by saying “I assume what you are really asking is if there is any reason why I would not be able to put 100% effort into this job. I assure you there is not.”
  • Declare the question out of bounds:
    “I won't answer that kind of question.”
  • Leave the Interview.
  • File a formal or an informal complaint with the Career Services Office.
  • File a lawsuit.

Reporting Complaints

If you believe an employer has violated Cornell Law School's Equal Employment policies, please consider reporting these violations to us.

Complaints will be handled in a confidential manner, and will be acted on only with your consent. Your complaint can be placed in a confidential file so that the Career Services Office can monitor the employer. The employer can be called or written to by the law school, or the formal complaint procedure can be invoked. Employers are aware that a “bad reputation” can hurt their recruiting efforts at Cornell. Bear in mind that no matter what the interviewer does, you want to maintain civility. You will just be dealing with one person whose behavior may be totally contrary to the beliefs of his or her coworkers.