4 Inappropriate Interview Questions—and How to Answer Them

Pauline Millard
Posted

The other problem is, even if someone asks you something that appears questionable, since you’re not inside the interviewer’s head, you don’t know his or her intent. Sometimes questions come up organically in a conversation—such as how many kids you have—and sometimes a manager really doesn’t want to deal with an employee and his or her potential childcare issues. There is just no good way to tell.

Instead of being on guard, she suggests you treat an interview conversation like a cocktail party: “You want to be charming and let people get to know you,” she says, “but you’re not going to blurt out every personal detail about yourself.”

An easy way to avoid revealing too much is to be conscious of your small talk. During any interview there’s usually a point where you’re talking about the weather or your weekend. Feldman says to be cheery but don’t give away the farm. “You can say you went away for the weekend, just don’t tell them you took your son to a church picnic,” she says. That could expose you to two protected classes, religion and familial status.

A few prickly interview questions tend to come up a lot in interviews. Here are four you should know how to deflect when an interviewer starts getting nosey, and you want to point the conversation back toward your skills.

1. What have you been doing for the past year?

While a seemingly innocuous question, this can be a loaded gun, especially for parents who’ve been home with a new baby or young kids for a stretch. The obvious answer is to be honest and say you’ve been a stay-at-home mom, but Feldman says not to leave it at that.

If you have been at home, be truthful, but if you’ve also been doing anything like volunteer work, part-time work or work from home, be sure to mention it—and quantify what you’ve done. “I’ve been volunteering with the Red Cross and I was part of a team that raised $20,000,” or, “I’ve been home with my son while teaching a class at the community college.”

If your kids have been your sole focus, make it clear that you’re eager to get back into the workforce. Feldman says a good line is, “I’ve been home with my son for the past year but I am eager to be back in an office. I miss the intellectual stimulation of being part of a team.”

RELATED: How to Explain a Big Employment Gap

  • Christine Tarlecki

    Great article! I interviewed w a large papers shredding/digital backup storage company and my future boss seemed intent on finding all kinds of non-relevant stuff. Are you married? Do you have kids? Where do you live? Do you have a boyfriend? What kind of house do you have? Do you go to church? What religion are you? I was so amazed at all the NON-job questions I merely said, it’s me and my cat, woo! So, can you tell me more about the day-to-day duties?? She was a piece of work. I got the job, but left after 9 months b/c she was awful.

  • Emily Rosenberg

    So…where are the questions and how do we answer them?

  • Em

    I think it would be helpful if this article included some information on what to do when the questions are illegal, or aren’t included in the “small talk portion” of the interview. As much as I agree that you shouldn’t assume that the interviewer is being anything but friendly, that won’t always be be the case. Deflection is a good tactic in the interview, but if you suspect a company has illegal hiring practices, what are your options?

    • Nathalie

      If you suspect that during the interview, you should probably ask yourself if that is a place you really want to work. The point of the interview is for both sides to see if there’s a good fit. If deflection doesn’t work, be nice and ask them if they could focus on the job you’re actually applying for. If that doesn’t work, thank them for the interview and end it.

    • ranavain

      Actually, one important thing I think the article should have mentioned, but didn’t, is that none of these questions actually ARE illegal. It’s just that it’s not legal to base your hiring of a person on the answers.

      So a good/intelligent/thoughtful interviewer won’t ask them, because they can’t take the answers into account when hiring, but there’s nothing inherently illegal about the questions.

      The only question I know about that it’s actually illegal to ask in an interview, which also wasn’t covered here, is whether or not you have a disability or medical condition. They are allowed to use the language I’m sure we’ve all seen of “can you do this job with or without reasonable accommodation?” but they can’t just ask you if you have a disability, and they generally can’t refuse to hire you if you do, unless said disability cannot be accommodated reasonably by the employer (per the ADA).

      But overall, yeah, if you are getting questions like these, it’s good to know how to deflect them in a way that doesn’t reveal the information (to prevent illegal discrimination) while also not damaging your chances to get an offer.

      • Lucy

        Questions 1 and 4 may not be illegal per se, but 2 and 3 certainly are. They can’t legally ask about your marital/family status, sexual orientation, religion or age (except to verify that you’re over 18).

        • ranavain

          I’m sorry you don’t believe me? It’s a very widespread belief that those questions are illegal to ask, and it’s unfortunate that LearnVest has an “expert” writing articles like this that don’t know the actual law, but they are not illegal questions to ask. It is illegal to take the answers into account when hiring, so there’s no point in asking them, but they are absolutely not themselves illegal to ask. Here’s one of many pieces of evidence I can cite:

          http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/2011/01/10/is-that-interview-question-legal

          • Derek

            While the questions might not be illegal, they can be used during a trial to prove illegal discrimination. The fact that our government has expressly stated that employers are not to ask these questions as they can only lead to violations of the Equal Opportunity Act proves that although not illegal, you can still be hung for asking such questions.

  • ealj

    The headline for this article and the content of this article are completely at odds. The headline promises we will learn ways to answer inappropriate questions from the interviewer. What we get is what we should not ask and what we should ask. That is valuable information, of course. But so is the information promised in the headline. Where is that? I have noticed this problem on this site often. Please be more accurate in your headlines!!

    • Jay

      I absolutely agree. LearnVest must receive money from advertisers each time we open the website because most of the articles they have sent in the last 12 months have misleading titles; enticing the reader to open the link and falling short on content.

    • Lucy

      You need to click on pages 2 and 3 of the article to see the questions and how to answer them.

  • paganheart

    Frankly it stuns me that interviewers still ask these questions, and seem more concerned with your personal life rather than whether or not you have the skills to do a job. As far as I am concerned whether or not you are married, have kids, go to church, etc is nobody’s damned business but your own. All that should matter in an interview is whether or not you have the skills to do the job. Unfortunately we are now in a new reality where the fact is that there just are never going to be enough jobs to go around, and with employers receiving massive numbers of applications for every single job, they are looking for any and every excuse to eliminate people, and they know that proving that you weren’t hired because you have kids, or don’t go to church, etc is nearly impossible to prove in this day and age. They can always say that “we went with a better candidate,” because there are multiple candidates for every job, and you can’t prove otherwise.

    I have just about lost all faith in the “job-hunting” process, and corporate life in general. But I just don’t know if there is any better way, especially given the new reality of too many people, and not enough jobs.

  • js

    The thing that these interviewers forget is that they aren’t the only ones doing the interviewing. I am interviewing them too to see if the company is a fit or not.

  • D

    I’ve actually had these questions asked of me before… If I owned a house, if I was married (which I’m not) and if/ when we were planning on getting married. Not only are those questions awkward to answer when it’s a friend or family asking (and they ask a lot!!) it was super awkward because I wasn’t sure what the “right” answer should be, and if I should fib to fit their expectations.

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  • Julie

    To me these are completely appropriate interview questions. The interviewer is trying to understand what external responsibilities this person may have. Perhaps there will be weekend work or travel. What is unfair is when someone dishonestly presents themselves and then expects their single/childless coworkers to pick pick up the slack. Taking your kid to a soccer game is not a legitimate reason for me to have to travel over the weekend for you. I want the single people out there to know that their time isn’t worth less just because they don’t have kids. If children are a priority then you should tell an interviewer and maybe find a position that works with your limited schedule.

  • unlisted in d.c.

    I interviewed with an organization after graduating from college. When I went in for the interview the interviewer thought they had the wrong resume as I had some relevant professional experience both full and part time since junior year of high school. After realizing it was the correct resume she proceeded by asking bluntly what my age was. Needless to say I was offered a job but not at a higher level that I qualified for because I was to be the youngest on the team. Needless to say that I did not take the job.

  • cemab4y

    I cringe whenever I hear these questions. When I go on an interview, I always wear my wedding band (I am divorced). I make sure the interviewer sees it. Companies are more likely to hire married men. Sad.