5 Ways To Handle Inappropriate Job Interview Questions

5 Ways To Handle Inappropriate Job Interview Questions

by Kerry Scott on 2 November 2009

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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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{ 7 comments }

Dan November 2, 2009 at 2:02 pm

There were two times in my life I wanted to get up and walk out of an interview.

The first was when I relocated from the east coast to the west coast. Incidentally, my company was in the middle of merging with a company who had a location where I was moving. I thought, hey, why not get a transfer. But you don’t just “get a transfer” you go through the whole interview process. When asked what my idea of team work was, I said, “oh if I saw a guy doing XXX by himself, I’d hurry over and lend him a hand.” (To that, I got “oh, our trucks aren’t configured that way. Do you have a different answer?) When asked why he should hire me, I said, “I’m a hard worker, experienced in the field, and come from a fast-paced organization quite similar to your operation here.” (Basically, I was the best guy for the job, and I knew it. These are also relatively high turnover positions.) Instead of a, “oh, that sounds great,” I got “Well, if another candidate has the same level of knowledge and experience as you do, why should I hire you instead?” (I told him he should hire us both ’cause there’s always a need for trained, experienced employees who can do what we do.) But the whole thing was just hostile from the get-go — I so wanted wanted to just get up and leave, but I needed a job. And they never made an offer.

The second, Kerry, comes from a competing airline, and I would love it if you could work it into your “tales of the cluefree.” Mind you, I have about 7 years of aviation experience — all out on the ramp. After a phone screen for a revenue analysis job, this airline flew me down to their Tempe, AZ headquarters. I spent half an hour each with two different managers who I would report to, answering office behavioral questions regarding prior experience. I’d like to give you a hint people — if a guy makes it clear his work experience is throwing bags, pumping jet fuel, and cleaning airplane toilets, he:

1) Doesn’t have deadlines in the traditional sense of the word. Every flight he works is a deadline in the purest sense, and if a deadline gets missed, odds are that it’s neither his fault, nor within his lone ability to fix. If you try to “save the day” your boss will get mad because he has other things he needs you to do.

2) Works shift work. He gets paid overtime (that means time and half) for “working late.” Some shift workers live on it. For him, Friday may be the middle of the work week, and he may have worked overtime on that day for 9 straight months. So, for the love of god, don’t ask him to recount a time he stayed late on a Friday to “save the day.” I cannot tell you about this really valuable client whose business we would have lost had I not worked over that day. For one, I never know who the clients are, and two, I do not know that we would have lost their business. (And the reason I worked so much damn overtime was because the company short staffed us. But I’m not going to tell you that during an interview.)

3) Has experience in the field. Don’t wait until the very last question of the interview to pick up the resume and say “oh, it looks like you have some airline experience.” Yes, stupid, I do. And if you would have picked up on that an hour ago, you would have 1) Impressed upon your candidate that you do have a clue, and 2) might have changed the behavioral questions to accommodate that.

4) Would much prefer that you focus the interview on the skills he can bring to the table. Look at his resume and ask him a few questions based on that. Talk about what he knows about the industry. Yes, I’m pretty sure these guys went a solid hour before they referenced my resume.

5) I don’t care if you put me up in your crew hotel because you have a negotiated rate, but you look really cheap when said hotel charges for internet access and you don’t voluntarily provide an expense reimbursement form. Come to think about it, you didn’t pay for my dinner the night you flew me in, either…

6) BTW, if a candidate has just put his 10 year life history into you online ATS, and if you insist on making him fill it out on paper during the interview, please inform him of such ahead of time so he can be prepared.

I swear to god, that was the worst interview I ever had. I would have walked out on it earlier, but the next stop was lunch, paid for by the company, followed by my cross-country flight back home. Leaving in the middle would have forced me to pay for lunch, and left me sitting in the airport twiddling my thumbs.

What managers need to know is that interviews are an opportunity for the candidate to get a feel for the company and the people he may be working with and under. It’s as much of a one-shot deal for them as it is for you — if you come across as clueless and stupid, that’s the only personal impression they have upon which to make their decisions. And who wants to work for that type of boss, let alone two?

(And I have a MidEx story for you too, Kerry, but it predates your tenure there. It’s not nearly as juicy though, but could be fodder for the “tales” archive.)

abdpbt November 2, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Wow, I’ve never had these kinds of experiences. But I was thinking — on what planet would somebody think it’s OK to ask about some of this stuff? I guess they’re just seeing what they can get away with.
.-= abdpbt´s last blog ..18 Funny Tweets Made By People Other Than Myself. Because If Twitter Is Going To Rip Off My Lists, Then I’m Going To Rip Off Their Favorites =-.

Melissa November 2, 2009 at 5:38 pm

My husband, who is hard of hearing, has had some very inappropriate questions about his hearing loss early in some interview processes. It’s always hard to deal with since he feels that he is being judged by his perceived disability, not the accomplishments listed on his resume.
.-= Melissa´s last blog ..Change =-.

Sara November 2, 2009 at 8:44 pm

For me, bad interviewing is far too common. But kind of hilarious.

There once was an interviewer that kept talking about herself in 3rd person, and was very grand (yes in size, but also loud, and made big arm movements). She kept talking about herself, and I wanted to tell her to calm down, she’s not Oprah. She also started the interview with “well, just so you know, we are planning on hiring the other person we interviewed, so unless you knock our socks off, this is just an informational interview”. The sad thing? The other 2 birds beside her, didn’t bat at an eye at any of this. I wanted the interview at the time to try and knock socks off but really, I should have just walked out.

There was also one of my first jobs pre-college, for a part-time office position. With little experience, I listed as much high school information that might be helpful. Well the interviewer first started off commenting on my age, and how I was way too young to be interviewed (I was actually 20 which is young but what’s the relevance?) and then she kept calling me Princess. And then at one point when she saw that I studied theater for 4 years at an art school, she declared that they didn’t need any actresses. She also inquired on my nationality. And at that point I spoke up and said, how to my knowledge, was not an appropriate HR question. To which she replied, she is the boss and can ask anything she wants.

Um next?

Tim G November 2, 2009 at 9:06 pm

I’ve spent a lot of time training interviewers. When one kept trying to figure out a way to phrase an illegal question, we simply didn’t put him in the interview schedule. Some employers like to get many employees involved in the process – sort of a team idea – but then get people voting on the candidate based on overall impression, which is just a factor, not the basis for hire. If you think the questions are bad, chances are the decision process is worse.
.-= Tim G´s last blog ..6 Moments When I Wished For a Do-Over =-.

GeekChic November 3, 2009 at 1:23 am

I have a funny story related to strategy #1. The in-person interview for my current position was an all-day affair and the interview team consisted of an HR rep, the hiring manager and the manager of a related department.

The morning went well, as did lunch and the tone of the interview shifted to slightly more casual. After lunch, the interview team took me up to meet the CEO. The four of us were chatting in his outer office when the hiring manager looked and me and asked, “So how old are you?”

Dead silence for about two seconds – while the HR rep looked horrified. Then he turned to me and said “Don’t answer that!” I laughed because I could understand where the question came from and it didn’t bother me (but it’s definitely a no-no). I then said, “I don’t mind answering. I’m 32. I’m also married with no kids and no plans to have kids. Which I think addresses most of the questions you’re not supposed to ask.”

At this point, the CEO made his presence known and I stood up to greet him. We made small talk for a few minutes before he commented, “You handled that inappropriate question well.” I thanked him and then said, “Besides, now you have to hire me right?” He laughed and excused himself.

The incident is still a running joke between HR, the CEO and myself.

Kerry Sandberg Scott November 4, 2009 at 8:10 am

Dan—I’m not surprised that you have a Midwest story. My hiring experience with them was…not good (I worked at Skyway, but Midwest ran most of the hiring process for my job, which tells you a whole lot about the process right there). I can’t really talk smack about them, though, since not a single one of the people involved still work there (and since they weren’t evil or anything…I just didn’t like their hiring process).

abdpbt—I had virtually none of these experiences when I lived in California. When I left and moved to Wisconsin, it was a shock. People are much, much, MUCH less liability-conscious here. You wouldn’t believe the stuff you hear, as a candidate and as an employee.

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