5 Ways To Handle Inappropriate Job Interview Questions

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Every so often you get an interview that goes horribly wrong.  They start asking you questions that are inappropriate, or offensive, or are so stupid that you have trouble not making a face.  There are a few ways you can go in this situation:

  1. Answer the question. In a lot of cases, the interviewer doesn’t mean anything nefarious.  I had an interviewer start off the interview with, “So, do you have kids?”  I said I did, and we spent the entire interview time talking about our kids.  He wasn’t trying to discriminate or pry…he just didn’t know how to conduct an interview.  Since he was to be a peer of mine in this job, that wasn’t a big deal for me (in fact, that’s why they needed an HR person).  Depending on the question and the person asking, sometimes just going with the flow is okay.
  2. Answer the REAL question. Sometimes people are trying to find out something legitimate, and they just don’t know how to ask.  If someone says, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” they might really just want to know if you’re authorized to work here.  You can answer with “I’m authorized to work in the U.S.”
  3. Ask them a question. Sometimes saying “Why do you ask?” (in a curious tone, not a defensive one) is a good strategy.  You can figure out whether they’re jerks or not, and you can also find out what their issues are.  Once, someone asked me, “Are you planning to have children soon?”  I asked why they wanted to know, and I spent the next ten minutes hearing about all of the women they’d hired who had gotten pregnant and failed to return after the baby was born.  It seemed statistically unlikely to me that THAT many woman could even afford to stay home after the baby, so I asked around.  It turned out that this was the sort of place that you wouldn’t want to go back to on Monday, let a long after a baby.  Most of them had gotten jobs elsewhere and just hadn’t told them.  That’s good information to have about a potential employer.  I saved myself a lot of grief.
  4. Flip it around. This works best for HR people, but I think you could do this if you were interviewing for any sort of management job.  I’ve had one or two interviews where I’ve been asked something so covered with red flags that I said, “Oh, I see.  You’re testing my knowledge of employment law.  Don’t worry, I would NEVER ask a candidate a question about their [religion, sexual orientation, whatever].  Then look at them.  Blink if you must, but say nothing else.  If they claim it’s a legitimate question, act shocked.  You’re very unlikely to get the job if you use this technique, but if it’s so bad that you’re itching to shut it down so you can leave, this will usually do the trick.
  5. Leave. I’ve only done this once.  Long before I was in HR, I interviewed for an administrative job with a religious organization.  It had been a blind ad, and when they called me, I made it clear that I was not of the same faith.  They still wanted me to come in, and I needed a job, so I went.  The manager who interviewed me was great, but the next one was the office manager, and she was so hostile and nasty regarding my religious beliefs that I finally said, “I think I’d better go.”  I picked up my coat and left.  There’s no way I could have worked there, and there’s no need to listen to someone who is being deliberately offensive.  Be polite, but remove yourself from situations like that.  Life is too short to listen to the you’re-going-to-hell lady.

Photo by jbcurio

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