Employers are entitled to ask applicants questions, but none that are not allowed (illegal is a pretty strong word, I have to admit.) That means their questions are ok only to the extent that they have a „legitimate, equitable interest worthy of protection“ in answering such questions. Because employers are obliged to base their decision in favor of an applicant exclusively on objective reasons.
What questions do you need to answer, what questions are neither necessary nor allowed, and most importantly, how to answer smartly as an international candidate.
This is what I’m explaining in this article, so you can prepare well before you’re in the interview situation. Because, some HR ask questions that are not appropriate, not permitted and sometimes demonstrate a bad corporate culture. You need to know in advance how to react. Should you answer it anyway, or nod your head in dismissal?
In the following, I’m explaining what the HRs and managers involved in the hiring process are allowed to ask, what is truly illegal – and the shades in between.
The right to ask of the German employer
Every employer has a special interest in finding out as much as possible about their potential employee. Much is already available on the Internet, on social media, and on Google, employers are able to research what kind of person the applicant is.
So HR has to make a selection among the applicants. To do this, she/ he will ask a variety of questions to get a detailed picture and to highlight the differences between the applicants, and thus find the most suitable one.
That’s so far, and so good.
However, employers are often interested in information that, from a legal point of view, is of no interest to them.
Where are exactly the limits?
Lying is not forbidden by law
Basically, false statements in the interview will get you into hot water so bubbling-boiling that you can easily burn yourself.
Anyone who knowingly makes false statements is breaking the law. In the worst case, this can lead to being quickly dismissed. I call it „to play Trump“ when candidates want to get hired by pretending to have way more skills and expertise than they truly have. In the past, I’ve already seen applicants being dismissed from their jobs before their first week was up. Because they intentionally presented a false picture of their expertise.
But there is one, but a teensy exception to this rule. And that is when responding to truly illegal questions.
You can even say you’re „right to lie.“ A German right, so to speak.
Speaking of „right“, I mean that you won’t get any legal consequences if you give an unlawful answer to an unlawful question.
View of employer’s right to ask
The goal of an interview is for both the company and the applicant to find out if you are a good match. The representatives of the company know very well what the job is, what the tasks are and which team the new colleague will be joining. So clearly they have an information advantage. So they can judge much much better what mix of skills and personality an applicant must have. Through their questions, they try to find out if the applicant is the best possible fit for this very specific job.
Really, I have to take a stand for all those HR and Managers. Most of them have an honest interest in really getting to know the applicant. They want to get their own picture and not do anything unethical.
However, in this table, you will find an overview of the question areas that employers
are not allowed to ask or only in very specific cases.
In some instances, candidates must inform the employer directly:
|Area||Permitted||Permitted in exceptions||Duty of disclosure|
|IMPENDING PRISON SENTENCES||✔️||✔️||✔️|
How do I recognize unlawful questions?
In Germany, the principle applies that all questions that violate our anti-discrimination law are inadmissible (in our case this is officially called: Allgemeines Gleichstellungsgesetz).
Inadmissible questions in the job interview relate primarily to these areas:
- Partnership and family planning
- Health issues
- Political conviction and trade union affiliation
- Ethnic origin
- Criminal record
The difficulty, however, is determining whether the employer’s question is legitimate and relevant to the job.
Imagine, you’re asked by the recruiter if you have some health limitations.
Now you’re thinking about whether you should tell them that you had a skiing accident last year and your knee was broken. And that, still, you have to walk slow, be always very careful when walking up and down stairs and that you’re easily exhausted.
If you’re applying for a sedentary job, like accounting, then your bad knee doesn’t represent a hindrance to your performance (at least not if you don’t have to run up and down between floors every day).
It might be different if you’re a project manager working on a construction site and have to be on your feet all day. Here, your bad knee could actually reduce your performance. This is a case where you must not lie but the true and honest answer is essential for your job and employer.
Honesty in job stations and qualifications required
Before we go into the long list of questions that employers have nothing to do with, let me draw your attention to one important point.
With regard to previous work experience and qualifications, each applicant must tell the truth.
Because in this case, an employer has a relevant interest in knowing the truth about the previous professional career and, for example, certificates or degrees.
If the candidate doesn’t do this, it’s called fraudulent misrepresentation. This is a term that comes from the law. Applicants may be sued by the employer company in court for damages. This can be very expensive.
Sample List of unauthorized questions
Questions about yourself
- How old are you?
- Where are you from?
- Where are your parents from?
- Have you been living in Germany for a long time?
- Do you suffer from any physical limitations?
- Are there any hereditary diseases in your family?
- Oh, you’ve taken a semester off. Were you sick?
No applicant is required to provide information health status.
However, there might be situations where the applicant is required to actively inform the employer / HR or recruiter.
Situations in which there’s such a disclosure duty is when she/ he has a contagious disease and puts the colleagues at risk. Or, if the illness restricts her/ his ability to perform the specific job.
- Which religious community do you belong to?
- Are you a Muslim?
- Do you go to church/mosque?
Even though I’m ashamed to admit it: There are HR and companies that ask about religion. Maybe not directly, but then the question might come more indirectly. Some companies are still very traditional and have little experience with international applicants. If this happens to you, you are not completely out of the clouds.
I think it has something to do with the fact that some companies have so little experience with international people and are in doubt if there is any relevance to the company’s day-to-day business.
However, a single exception to this rule exists. Those who apply to a confessional employer (e.g. a Catholic hospital or Caritas), or to a party-political institution, do indeed have to answer this question. Here the employer’s interest is truly justified.
- What country do your ancestors come from?
- Which culture do you belong to?
- Do you have a criminal record?
- Have you ever served a prison sentence?
Again, the employer may ask if the criminal record is relevant to the job. Let’s think of a doctor who has lost her driver’s license. Because her driver’s license is not important for her job, the question is not appropriate. But if it’s a truck or service driver, the employer is allowed to ask about this.
Political conviction and union affiliation
- Were you a member of any political initiative at university?
- Are you a union member?
Family planning and partnership
- Are you in a relationship?
- What does your partner (and family) say about moving to Munich?
- Will your partner also move to Germany?
- What will you do if your partner cannot find a job in Germany?
- When are you getting married?
- Do you want to have children?
- Are you pregnant?
The only exception is that a woman is obliged by law to tell the truth about her being pregnant: If she applies for a replacement position because the holder is on maternity leave.
Join my German Business Culture – Insights
Get the latest news, updates and releases.
Please check the data-privacy for further details about the newsletter.
How to react to improper questions
It gives a great deal of clarity to know the questions you are not allowed to be asked from the perspective of the law.
Because this gives you the emotional strength to distinguish between questions that are ok and those where you don’t have to tell the truth.
It always depends on what question you are asked and in what tone.
If the situation in the interview is not completely beyond belief and a nightmare, it’s often better to first get through the interview as well as possible.
The decision whether you want to work in the company will be made later.
These are the basic options you have:
#1 – You refuse to answer
Rather the sledgehammer method is to reply, „You can’t ask me that.“
Extremely bad for the relationship between you and the company would be to answer, „I don’t want to say that.“
Yet, an interview is a conversation at eye level. And if you have the strong sense you’re not being respected, you have the right to draw boundaries. However, you probably put an end to the interview with that answer.
#2 – You don’t mind the question
Some questions about yourself may not be required to evaluate your qualifications. But HR or managers want to understand more about the other person, ultimately to clear up doubts about the person’s suitability for the team.
So you need to decide if the question is ok with you or not. And if you give an answer, do it in a way that showcases your strength and personality. Even better, you can give an answer that is not completely false and places you in a good light as an applicant:
„What does your husband say about the fact that you are applying 500 km from your home?“
Well, as an answer I wouldn’t say that my husband told me last night that I am nuts to apply to Hamburg!
But rather, I might tweak the answer a tiny bit and say „my husband supports me fully in my career“.
#4 – The question is indecent
If the interview goes well enough overall and a question then comes up which is inappropriate, you can try to answer evasively at first. Or skip the answer altogether and continue on another topic.
But it’s also perfectly legitimate for you to draw a clear line and ask, „What does this have to do with the job?“ And then direct the conversation back to the important issues.
Sometimes asking awkward questions and observing how the candidate reacts is a strategy used by HR. Whenever personality is required for a job, executives are often positively impressed when the candidate “ stands up for himself“ and signals self-confidence. But ultimately, things always depend on the individual situation.
You may also at any time answer incorrectly a question that is not allowed or is too indiscreet. For example, asking an unmarried man of 40 years why he is not married clearly crosses a line.
Finally, you may ask yourself if you want to work in a company where such behavior is apparently standard among people.
#5 – The question is offensive
It is always possible that the other party asks you a question and does not know what it triggers in you.
The area of religion is very sensitive, an absolute taboo. This applies not only to job interviews but in Germany it’s always and fundamentally an absolutely private topic and not to be discussed.
However, it is wise to always remain calm and smile. You may even succeed in asking why this question is being asked.
Then it might turn out that there is no hurtful intention behind a question but an honest effort to understand and find solutions for everyday work. But again, you may ask what these questions say about the company culture.
#6 – The question is ice-cold calculation
When it comes to issues of family planning, health, or union organization it’s a deliberate violation of the rules.
If you do not want to answer the question here, you have a disadvantage in the application process
Thus, you have the right to lie and are allowed to make false statements.
Acting confidently in interviews is a matter of practice.
In sports, we all know that only those who train regularly have a chance of winning in competition.
If you don’t have much experience with the German interview culture yet, you might need time to get your bearings. And to align. If you feel unsure about what behavior is appropriate, get feedback from a person who knows. Feel free to ask me.
All the success!