Noting Questionable Questions
Employers shouldn’t quiz you about any of the following topics:
- Marital/family status
- National origin
- Sex (gender)
Federal, state, and city laws prohibit employers from asking certain questions unrelated to the job they’re hiring to fill. Questions should be job related and should not be used to pry loose personal information. Some inquiries about the off-limits topics are flat-out illegal. Others are merely borderline and inappropriate. This chapter helps you recognize both types of employment probes and suggests responses to make honey out of noneof- your-beeswax questions.
Defining Illegal Questions
An illegal question is one that the interviewer has no legal right to ask.
The federal government and most states and large cities have laws restraining employers from going hog-wild with intrusive questions. These laws cover civil rights — age, sex, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so forth. Asking illegal questions can get the interviewer called on the legal carpet.
To find out what’s what in your locale, snag the facts.
- You can inquire at your state or city attorney general’s office. Check out a big library for a list of questions that shouldn’t be asked, especially according to state or local laws.
- At the federal level, scout the website of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (www.eeoc.gov; search for “Federal Laws Prohibiting Job Discrimination: Questions and Answers”).
- Browse online for “list of illegal job interview questions.”
Defining Inappropriate Questions
An inappropriate question is one the interviewer can legally ask but probably shouldn’t. Depending on whether the information is used to discriminate, inappropriate questions set up employers for lawsuits. It’s a threat their corporate lawyers constantly warn against. Inappropriate questions range from civil rights and privacy issues to hard-to-classify bizarre inquiries:
Is your girlfriend white?
How would you go about making a pizza?
If you were at a departmental meeting and a coworker put his hand on your thigh, what would you do?
Interviewers in companies that have human resources departments should know better than to ask inappropriate questions. But some go on fishing expeditions, hoping that weird, unexpected questions will rattle candidates, causing them to “show their true colors.”
Other interviewers are natural-born buttinskies who ask risky questions because they want the information and are willing to gamble that they won’t be challenged.
Illegal questions are always inappropriate, but inappropriate questions are not always illegal.
Think First, Answer Second
What if an interviewer does cross the line and has the audacity to toss you a possibly discriminatory question? Assuming that you want the job, think through your answer before automatically flaming the transgressor with snarky responses like the following:
Is your question aimed at trying to find out how old I am? That would be illegal. Shame on you!
As you know, under Title VII, basing employment decisions on sex is illegal, and I feel that this question is discriminatory in nature.
Those passive-aggressive comebacks work only in he-said-she-said movies. It’s a mistake to verbally punch out an interviewer — especially if the interview is otherwise going well and you’re sensing that this job could be the right one for you.
Having said that, if a question is repugnant or blatantly discriminatory, don’t answer it at all or answer it your way. For example, an answer to the question mentioned earlier in this chapter — Is your girlfriend white? — may be this one:
I don’t feel that specific, intimate details of my personal life would be appropriate to discuss here. They do not affect my ability to effectively perform the duties of this position. (Translation: Back off.)
Sometimes you have to establish your boundaries firmly. But in general, if you want the job, avoid becoming confrontational and answer all the questions to your benefit.
But what if the interviewer would be your boss and is such a jerk that you don’t want the job? Utter a polite exit line and leave.
Redirect Inappropriate Questions
Another, foxier approach works better for you, especially if you think the interviewer’s questions come from ignorance rather than bias. Deftly twist the offensive question. Here’s an example of redirecting:
Suppose the interviewer asks a question about age:
I see you went to the University of Colorado. My son’s there now. When did you graduate?
The smooth candidate directly responds to the question, sort of:
I don’t think your son and I know each other. I’m sure he’s a fine young man. As for me, fortunately, I’ve been out of school long enough to have developed good judgment. Would you like to know a little about how my good judgment saved a previous employer $25,000?
Another way to redirect is to answer the question you want to answer, not necessarily the question that’s asked. (Politicians do so all the time.) Using the same situation, here’s an example of how a smooth candidate cherrypicks the conversation:
You mention the University of Colorado, such a fine school. In addition to taking my undergraduate degree there, I returned last summer for an intensive executive management course that prepared me for exactly the kind of position we’re discussing now. Would you like to hear more about how I’m a good match for the financial oversight functions of this position?
You know that religion is a slippery-slope question not to answer directly. But the question may come at you sideways. Suppose, for example, you’re asked whether you’ll need time off to celebrate any religious holiday. Try this approach:
I understand your concern about the time I will need to observe my religious beliefs, but let me assure you that if this time has any bearing on my job performance at all, it will only be positive, because the inspiration of my beliefs will help me stay renewed, fresh, and mentally focused.
My suggested answer makes no mention of specific religious holidays, it doesn’t refuse to answer, and it doesn’t confront the interviewer with the discriminatory nature of the question.
(Obviously, if you’re interviewing at a religious organization known for restricting hiring to its faith’s followers and you’re one of their faithful, identify yourself.) As a rule, you win by remaining calm and outthinking an offensive questioner. A good job offer is the best interview strategy of all.
Rehearsing Dicey Questions
Table 22-1 is a playbill of inappropriate or illegal questions you hope you never hear. Decide in advance how you’ll respond to nonstarters like these — just in case. When the quizzing is expressed in an appropriate version, give a straightforward answer.