You’re in the middle of a job interview when, out of the blue, the manager asks what your significant other does for a living.
Questions about your age, race, national origin, gender, religion, marital status and sexual orientation are strictly off-limits, but how do you respond to those that solicit irrelevant or personal information? Should you tap dance around the issue or put the boor in his place? Gather your things and head for the nearest exit? The answer depends on your risk tolerance, how badly you want the job and, perhaps most importantly, your ability to manage the situation.
The decision tree below will help you determine the right course of action. Naturally, your risk increases as you ratchet up your response — but so does your ability to assess the manager’s biases, flexibility and style.
Strategy: Deflect or Defer
- Risk Level: Low
- Effectiveness: Low to Moderate
The path of least resistance is simply to answer the question. If you decide to take this route, say as little as possible. “He works in a bank,” for instance. Humor is another safe bet. “I thought he was Warren Buffet’s nephew. Turns out he’s not and that’s one of the reasons I’m here today. The other reason is my desire to build killer apps.”
An intuitive, emotionally intelligent manager will pick up on your nuanced response and respect your boundaries. Sharpen your pruning shears if he doesn’t take the hint.
Clarify the Question
- Risk Level: Moderate
- Effectiveness: Moderate to High
If you like the company and the position, give the manager a chance to redeem himself by asking him to clarify the question. “I’m not sure how that relates to the job or my qualifications. Can you explain why you need to know or rephrase the question?”
This is a fairly safe way to discharge fishing expeditions for your marital status, childcare arrangements, household income and so forth. You get to push back, while the manager has a chance to save face and correct his course.
Besides that, his response will offer a preview of how he’ll react to differences of opinion on application design or code development issues if you decide to accept the job. If he acknowledges his mistake and sticks with job-related questions for the rest of the interview, he may be a pretty good boss.
Stand Your Ground
- Risk Level: High
- Effectiveness: High
If you’re willing to roll the dice, refuse to answer. This is often the best way to deal with blatantly illegal questions or a manager’s condescending attitude. Then, ease the tension by offering to discuss your job-related skills: “I’m not comfortable answering personal questions. May I tell you about my Java programming experience?”
If the manager insists or asks why you won’t answer, tell him (gently) that it’s irrelevant or illegal, but that you’re willing to discuss your technical skills and accomplishments. Hopefully, your response will lead to a fruitful conversation. If not, you can always end the interview by stating that this doesn’t seem like the right opportunity and thanking him for his time.
Remember, employers can’t legally refuse to hire you for declining to answer an illegal question. However, this question isn’t illegal, and the manager may ding you for being difficult or uncooperative if you overreact because it’s irrelevant or borderline. You can always escalate your tactics, but it’s hard to walk back an over-the-top response.