How to handle illegal interview questions

One year ago, I was in the midst of a frantic residency interview season. There are many awkward moments when you go on this type of personal hype tour. None are more awkward than the moment when an interviewer probes a little too personally into your credentials and experiences. Illegally personal, to be exact.


Subtle selfie from the morning of my first residency interview

Don’t take my word for it that this may to happen to you. A 2013 study published in Academic Medicine confirms that the majority of applicants to medical specialty residencies are asked one or more potentially illegal question. Program directors and faculty should be paying attention since this paper reveals that asking such off-limits questions leads to a lower ranking from applicants.

My advice on how to proceed if (when) this happens to you:

1. Assume ignorance, not malice. It was distasteful to hear, “So, you must be about 30, huh?” in a formal interview setting, but I am assuming the faculty member was unaware that this is neither an appropriate nor legal nor relevant question. It would be a waste of my youth to stay angry at this oversight.

2. Follow-up when you’re ready. When asked about your plans to reproduce, your age or your nation of origin, it’s not realistic to call “Foul!” in that exact moment. You have worked so hard to get to the interview table in the first place. I waited until well after Match Day and then sent a brief note to a couple program directors to “share some feedback on one specific aspect of the interview at _____…”

3. Then, let it go. Amazingly, both program directors wrote back right away! Both seemed completely on board with the idea of improving protocol. Ideally, your follow-up will serve as positive advocacy for future interviewees. You will likely be an interviewer one day and will face the same temptations to prod for information beyond what may or may not qualify the applicant for the job at hand.

Has this ever happened to you? How do you think these moments should be handled? 

~Dr. Colleen Greene, Harvard ’13, immediate past president

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About Colleen Greene

Dr. Colleen Greene MPH is a board-certified pediatric dentist at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and full-time faculty in their pediatric dentistry residency program. She currently serves on the ADA New Dentist Committee as well as the Legislative Advocacy committee of the Wisconsin Dental Association. In 2012-2013 she was president of ASDA.

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Comments (3)

  1. Mark A. Bauman, DDS

    Your first point- “Assume ignorance, not malice” is right to the point.
    I went to a HR presentation awhile ago regarding interviewing, hiring/firing, documentation, etc. in the dental office. Most of the people in the audience were unaware of what was legal, appropriate, ethical, etc. since they usually do not receive this type of training nor information enough- even in practice management classes. My impression generally was that they would not ask the “wrong” questions if they knew better. Thanks for pointing this out. It will be interesting to see how interviewees have handled such situations tactfully without alienating the interviewer- even if they were asking improper questions.


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