There’s one key way an interviewer can trip you up, even if you’ve sailed through a whiteboard test and get along famously with everyone in the room: You may be asked a very personal, unexpected and inappropriate question, one that can knock you completely off course.
While inquiring about your marital status, children, or religious background may seem illegal, most of the time it’s not: The legal line gets crossed if an employer refuses to hire you because of the way you answer those questions.
The justification for prying often isn’t nefarious. Knowing a few non-work-related details can give an employer some confidence that you’ll be able to fully commit to the job, and it’s in your best interest to find a way to reassure them without giving too much away.
Bill Cole, M.S., M.A., a career counselor and author of the book, The Interview Success Guide, recommends that candidates let employers know that nothing will stand in the way of doing the job. But when HR starts becoming too crafty for their own good, you do have options: “Change the subject, dance around the issue, answer only part of the question, or ask a question of the interviewer,” Cole suggested.
Don’t Answer the Question; Answer the Intent
It’s important that you understand what’s behind the question, before addressing what makes the potential employer so uneasy. “The employer wants to know that you’ll be available to do the best job possible,” noted Susan Wise Miller, M.A., a career counselor and vocational expert at California Career Services. “That’s their main intent.”
He or she may want to know if your kids have time-sensitive needs, or if you’re planning on having children. An interviewer might try for a little subtlety, asking a question along the lines of, “Oh, I see you’re wearing a wedding ring. How old are your kids?” In response to such questions, Miller recommended an answer that’s diplomatic while addressing the concern underlying the question: “I’m happily married and my spouse and I are very career-oriented… There’s nothing at home that would prevent me from being here.”
Such responses are a win, added Cole: “Here, you can be tactful, and keep advancing the conversation. This approach is the most artful.”
An interviewer might ask if you’ll be unavailable to work for any periods of time; that could be an attempt to gauge your religious affiliation. They might also ask that question directly. How to respond? Cole suggested: “That’s an interesting question. I’ve never been asked that in a job interview. Can you tell me why you asked it?” If that doesn’t throw them off, restate your commitment to doing the “best job possible.”
If you do have religious obligations, you may want to wait for an offer before telling your potential employer that you’ll need to be away for both QI’lop and the Kot’baval Festival.
When the interviewer pokes at your “background,” or “where you (or your family) are from originally,” e.g. your ethnicity or culture, answering the question by asking another question is often the best defense. “You may say, ‘Are you asking everybody that question?’” said Wise Miller, “Or, ‘That’s very interesting that you’re asking that question. It seems like you’re intent on having a diverse workforce.’ You can play with your responses.”
Tell the Truth
If you’re comfortable that there are no shenanigans afoot, or a question occurs naturally in the flow of conversation, just answer truthfully—although Cole advised: “You must be careful that your response doesn’t harm you, or lock you into something that they can use against you in the future.”
To that end, calm the storm before it starts. If you’re asked about your children, Wise Miller suggested saying something to the effect of: “I’m very committed to my career so my family’s childcare is well covered.”
Use It as Practice
An interview may be quite pleasant but if you determine, via the nature of the questions, that this is an organization for which you don’t want to work, don’t let your time go to waste. Instead of ending the interview, Cole counseled, “Play along and use it as practice for future interviews.”
Worst Case Scenario
If an interviewer is just being a jerk and the questions are truly off the beam, you’re in your rights to stop to it. “Inform the interviewer that you don’t believe there’s a good fit between you and the organization,” Cole said. “Or tell them you won’t answer illegal questions; in either case, leave.”
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