Dealing with Inappropriate Interview Questions

In your job search, if you are interviewing regularly, it’s highly likely that sooner or later you will be asked a question that may seem inappropriate or legally dubious. How you view that question, and how you respond will very likely have a great impact on your success.

I recently had someone in my job search class tell me about an interview he had at a small company. The hiring manager asked what year he graduated from college, as it wasn’t on the resume. The candidate told him it was an inappropriate question to ask.
The interviewer said he was curious, and really wanted to know. And for a couple of very uncomfortable minutes the two of them argued back-and-forth about the legitimacy of the question.

The candidate assumed it was an effort to determine his age, and make a judgment on his suitability for the job accordingly. I have no idea if that was the intent or not, however, questions like that do occur often. So how should you react? Here are some ideas that may help:

Most hiring managers are not HR and Legal experts! Although direct questions about age, race, family, and other topics are not supposed to be asked or considered in an interview process, they often get asked innocently. Certainly someone in HR ought to be very aware and conscious of inappropriate questions, however, a direct hiring manager may not be. Often they are simply getting to know someone and are not looking for ways to discriminate. It may not be possible to know if the question was asked out of ignorance or not, but the way you react may determine your fate anyway.
Getting to know you and small talk are not necessarily forms of discrimination. If the question was asked simply as a means to get to know you better, or as a form of small talk during the interview, an over-reaction can create a very negative impression if no discrimination was intended. Yes, an interviewer should know better than to ask inappropriate questions, however, when they come about from casual conversation, they often had no ill intent behind them. Your reaction generally has more to do with whether they move forward or not than the actual answer to the question.

You’re never obligated to take a job offer! While others may have differing opinions, my perspective is that candidates are generally best off not making large waves during the process and reserving their judgment and response for afterward. If an inappropriate question was asked. Answering respectfully, and minimizing the negative response enables the process to continue.

If you ultimately receive an offer, it’s likely no discrimination was ever intended or took place. An offer will generally be the proof. If you still aren’t convinced though, you certainly don’t have to take the position and you can decide whether to pursue the matter with them further then.

If you do not receive an offer. It still may have had nothing to do with discriminatory practices, but rather that they had another, better qualified candidate. If you have doubts, you can decide at that point whether to pursue the matter or not.

Getting into a verbal battle with them during the interview process, however, virtually guarantees they will not want to consider you further for the role… not because of discrimination, but because they are not interested in hiring a combative employee.

An appropriate response to a potentially inappropriate question might be:

“I’m very interested in this position and would gladly answer all appropriate questions you may have for me in order to determine if I’m the right fit. However, an answer to that question doesn’t necessarily shed any light on my relevant qualifications, so if you don’t mind, I’d prefer not to answer it. Can we move on to other more relevant topics?”

Many interviewers are likely to get the hint and move on. Some, however, may not. If they continue to press for an answer. In my opinion, it is often best to give them a quick, straight-forward answer rather than continue to challenge them on the appropriateness of the question. You can certainly determine further into the hiring process whether a further response on your part is warranted.

In the case of the person from my job search class… he actually did receive a follow-up interview. The hiring manager simply knew someone that went to the same college and was interested whether they might have graduated at the same time. He shouldn’t have pressed the matter, and he should have been more upfront with his reason for asking. However, no discrimination was intended in any way. The candidate was fortunate that the process continued on, however, certainly may not have in most cases.

Don’t assume every inappropriate question has dark motives behind it. It may have been asked innocently, or because of a lack of knowledge. How you react, however, can determine if a good opportunity progresses for you or not.


Harry Urschel has over 20 years experience as a technology recruiter in Minnesota. He currently operates as e-Executives, writes a blog for Job Seekers called The Wise Job Search, and can be found on Twitter as @eExecutives.

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