How to Answer Inappropriate Interview Questions

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.

InterviewQuestions 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.

4 Responses to “How to Answer Inappropriate Interview Questions”

  1. lorraine drake

    Is it illegal for an employer to ask you when you graduated high school, that’s really asking your age. Wegmans ask for your SS# when applying online and if you don’t provide it, you cannot apply for a job. Is this legal.

    • Fuzzy Mutt

      Asking for your social security number on an unsecured website is like posting your SSN for all to see. Try 111-11-1111. It will pass through the firewall, and may get the hiring manager’s attention. If they actually want your social security number, have them make you an offer beforehand. There is no need for ANYONE to have your SSN but the HR department.

      I get asked questions about age, but slyly. For example, Are for a veteran of the Gulf War? Yes, that means you are in your 30s. The Gulf War was in the 1990s. Vietnam? You are in your 60s.

  2. Darian Dunn

    I have sat on both sides of the interview table as a solo interviewer and as a group, so… Most of the time when I find someone asking illegal questions (intentionally or not) it is one of a couple things.

    1. They are new at interviewing and don’t know what questions are illegal. This happened at the group interview and the hiring manager gave the death look to the employee who asked the question. The question didn’t bother me and I got to see how the manager deals with staff issues.

    2. They are getting comfortable with you and have already forgotten that this is an interview. This happened when I interviewed with IBM many years ago. He used to be a band geek and I use to be a band geek and we got side tracked into band geek stuff. BTW, I didn’t get the job because I didn’t have any Certs at the time and knew that was the reason before I left the room. It was one of the most honest interviews I have ever been part of.

    3. They are honestly trying to understand if you will fit in.

    As for #3; I am honest in my interviews. I am probably too honest in my interviews. I don’t want to change jobs, move and then find out I am not a good fit. I assume most people are the same way and try to provide the person on the other side of the table enough information so they can make a good decision.

    4. I have encountered someone who was prejudice. I was not the right sex, age, color…. Why in the world would I want to work for this person? Even if I get the job, they are going to be trying to find reasons for removing me on day 1. Life it too short and I am too valuable to people who are not prejudice.