• Rajani Katta MD and Samir Desai MD

What Should I Do if My Interviewer Asks Illegal Questions During the Residency Interview?


Medical students and international medical graduates (IMGs) may be asked inappropriate, unethical or even illegal questions during residency interviews



If you're applying for residency, you may not realize that interviewers may sometimes ask you illegal questions. This has been occurring for years, and it continues to occur.


  • Results of one AAMC Medical Student Graduation Questionnaire, obtained years ago, revealed that 45% of students had been asked about marital status or family plans.

  • In a more recent survey of over 7,000 applicants applying to five specialties (internal medicine, general surgery, orthopedic surgery, obstetrics & gynecology, and emergency medicine), nearly 65% reported being asked at least one potentially illegal question.


Despite efforts to eradicate questionable interview practices, interviewers continue to ask applicants inappropriate, unethical, or outright illegal questions.



Image of hands coming together and working together.
Sometimes residency interviewers will ask questions that are in violation of NRMP rules or state or federal employment laws


Learn what residency interview questions are in violation of state and federal laws and are therefore considered illegal interview questions


Federal and state civil rights acts make it unlawful for employers to discriminate on the basis of:

  • Religion

  • Age

  • Gender

  • Race

  • Sexual preference

  • Marital status/living situation

  • Family planning

  • Height

  • Weight

  • Military discharge status

In the context of an interview, state and federal employment laws prohibit employers from asking questions related to these areas.


However, interviewers continue to ask questions related to these areas, in direct violation of employment law. (I have personally witnessed colleagues asking some of these questions!)


Why would an interviewer ask an illegal question? Most of these questions are not asked out of malice, but out of simple ignorance. Naïve or less experienced interviewers may ask these questions simply to make conversation, not recognizing that they are inappropriate, unethical, or illegal.


Here are some examples that may be asked out of an interviewer's ignorance of correct interview conduct:


  • Are you married?

  • Do you live with your partner?

  • When are you planning to have children?

  • I notice you're of mixed race. Can you tell me about your heritage?

  • Wow, you've accomplished a lot so far in your career. How old are you?



Interviewers May Also Questions That Are in Direct Violation of NRMP Rules


Here's another question I've heard colleagues asking: "Where else are you interviewing?"


That particular question is in violation of the NRMP rules. These rules prohibit an interviewer from asking


  • The names of other programs to which you have applied

  • The names of other programs to which you have been offered interview invitations

  • The names of other programs at which you have interviewed

  • Other specialties to which you are applying

  • Geographic regions in which you are applying or interviewing

  • Other identifying information for other programs to which you are applying or interviewing



Why would interviewers ask these types of questions?


As offensive as some of these questions may be, please realize that most interviewers who ask these questions do so out of ignorance, rather than with any intent to discriminate.


In my conversations with colleagues, I’ve found that these questions are often asked because of genuine interest in the applicant. Some interviewers are simply unaware of what is, or isn’t, appropriate or legal.


Clearly we need more training to educate residency interviewers in this important area.


This was echoed by Dr. H. Gene Hern, Program Director of the emergency medicine residency program at Alameda Health System, who wrote that “each program should, regularly and in the beginning of interview season, re-educate their interviewers about what constitute illegal and inappropriate questions. The problem is that interviewers often do not consider their discussions with candidates as part of the protected aspect of job interviews. Faculty may pursue certain lines of questions unaware that they are technically violating employment law because of the setting of the conversation.”



How should I respond if I'm asked an illegal residency interview question?



Before you begin the interview process, it's important that you develop an effective way to handle these types of questions.


Some applicants, unprepared for such questions, have unfortunately reacted in an emotional manner. Some have refused to answer the question and some have even responded in a hostile manner: “That is a completely inappropriate question. I can’t believe you would ask me that.”


An outright refusal to answer an improper question is certainly your right.


However, you may offend the interviewer and create a challenging situation. It goes without saying that if the question is blatantly offensive, then you should choose this option (and later discuss with the program director, chairman, or NRMP).


If at all possible, however, you should try to answer the question as you would any other, with poise and confidence. There are several possible strategies to utilize. We describe two ways of handling these types of questions.


Image of people raising their hands to answer a question.
Try to answer the question as you would any other, with poise and confidence.


One Option to Handle an Inappropriate Question: Answer the Question Directly

Some applicants will choose to simply answer the question directly.


If you’re comfortable answering the question, then this may be the right approach for you. If the interviewer has asked the question just to make conversation, it’s unlikely that your response would affect your chances of matching with that program. If the interviewer is deliberately asking the question, then your response may have a direct impact on your chances of matching.

Question:

“I see that you’re a nontraditional student, already in your 30s. When do you plan on having children?”

Examples of direct responses:

  • “My husband and I hope to have children in the next few years.”

  • “My spouse and I have discussed it, and we’d like to delay until after residency, since it would be so challenging during residency.”

  • “We really haven’t come to any decision yet on that issue.”


Answer the intent or concern behind the question

Using this approach, you won’t directly answer the question. Your goal is to address the interviewer’s concern. The key is to try to understand why the question is being asked.

Question:

“I see that you’re a nontraditional student, already in your 30s. When do you plan on having children?”

This applicant assumes that the question is asked to determine if she would continue to be an effective resident in the event that she were to have a young child at home during residency:

“Dr. Lowell, I understand that the residents at Seymour Hospital deal with a very high patient volume when on call. I can assure you that I have a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility, along with the ability to deal with a demanding patient case load. You’ll find that my transcript and letters of recommendation attest to this fact.”



Be prepared to respond if you're asked an illegal interview question


The bottom line is you may be asked inappropriate or even illegal questions. Anticipate this possibility, and be prepared to respond with a calm, poised, confident answer.




Please visit the NRMP website for more information on reporting and investigating violations.

 

Dr. Rajani Katta is the creator of The Residency Interview 101, the online course that helps applicants quickly and confidently prepare for their residency interviews. She is also the co-author of The Successful Match: Rules to Succeed in the Residency Match and served as Professor of Dermatology at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 17 years.



Dr. Samir Desai is the author of 20 books, including The Successful Match and The Clinician's Guide to Laboratory Medicine. He has been a faculty member in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine for over 20 years and has won numerous teaching awards.



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