A few weeks ago I went to an interview for a role at a large real estate company. They were looking for a writer who also had a solid real estate background to handle some marketing projects. That is me to a T.
However, instead of focusing on my professional experience—or even showing a modicum of interest in the work samples I brought—the recruiter peppered the conversation with an array of unexpected questions: What did my husband do for a living? Did I get insurance from his company?
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My plans for childcare were a particular concern of hers. I had mentioned that I'd been at home with my son that summer, and she asked if I was ready to work in an office again and what my plans were for my son after school.
In the days that followed, I realized that a lot of her questions were not only unprofessional, they seemed rather illegal to me.
While I'm pretty quick on my feet, I also realized I didn’t know how to respond when a career recruiter started getting too personal. So, in an aim to help anyone else who's ever been thrown an interview curveball, I decided to call in an expert.
Amy E. Feldman is general counsel at The Judge Group, Inc., a staffing services company, and the co-author of the colorfully titled, "So Sue Me, Jackass!: Avoiding Legal Pitfalls That Can Come Back to Bite You at Work, at Home, and at Play." She said that even though the spectrum of inappropriate questions is pretty wide, there is no list of specific questions that are illegal—there are only protected classes such as age, race, color, religion, gender, handicap, national origin and sometimes sexual orientation.
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.”
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2. Are you married?
Familial status falls into the aforementioned protected classes, but because people get chatty, this often comes up in interviews.
If you are asked—and you’re not married—don’t get defensive. A gentle “Do you have to be married in order to do this job?” is a good way to deflect the question and steer the conversation back to the point of the interview, says Feldman.
Always assume that someone is asking these questions with the best intentions, says Feldman, and that they are trying to get to know you outside of the confines of the 9 to 5. Instead of getting huffy, handle the matter with humor. If you've ruled out having kids, then the truthful answer is a good answer for the purposes of getting the job: “Nope," "Been there, done that” or “Not at this stage of my life" all work.
If the answer, however, is either yes, you plan to have kids or you haven’t decided, then it’s none of the interviewer’s business. Getting back to the topic of your candidacy is the way to go. Try, “Before having kids, I want to be sure to have a way to feed them—like by getting a job and establishing myself and my career.”
3. Do you plan on having more children?
Familial status is a protected class, but this question seems to come up a lot during the small talk portion of the interview. Again, since you don’t know someone’s intentions, Feldman says to make light of it and move on. “Our family is the perfect size right now,” is a good response, she says. Then be sure to ask something related to the job.
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4. What does your significant other do?
Feldman says this question isn’t necessarily illegal, it's just irrelevant at an interview, because you’re there to talk about the job. However, it's unlikely a man would get the question, “What does your wife do?”
Your job during the interview, she says, isn’t to figure out whether a question is legal or illegal (that’s for replaying in your mind after the fact), you need to focus on the matter at hand: how to get this job. Try answering honestly while deflecting with humor (“He’s a lawyer. I hope you won’t hold that against me.”), and then simply turning the conversation around: "By the way, what does your spouse do? The key is to keep it light.