When interview questions get too personal: Tips for getting back to business

By Beth Braccio Hering, Special to CareerBuilder

Friday, November 05, 2010

Sure, it is an interviewer’s job to gather information about someone who wants to be hired. But when questions veer into matters that have little to do with an applicant’s ability to perform the job at hand, things can get uncomfortable. Here, experts and job seekers who have been there offer diplomatic ways to steer a nosy interviewer back on course.

Off-limit topics

“Some of the questions I’ve been asked at job interviews include age, religion, questions about my husband, more than a casual interest in what I do outside of work and my political affiliations,” says Janis Badarau of South Carolina. “Whenever an interviewer has asked such a question, my polite response has always been the same: ‘I’m afraid that if I answer that question I might be violating some kind of law.'”

While she reports having received a smile from more than one interviewer with this response, the fact remains that employers are not supposed to venture into certain areas.

“The basic illegal interview questions are ones based on religion, marital status, parenthood status and health issues,” notes Linda Matias, president of CareerStrides and author of “201 Knockout Answers to Tough Interview Questions.”

“Oftentimes when interviewers ask a question that is off limits, their intention isn’t to offend or alienate. Usually, they have a hidden concern and ask the wrong question to uncover whether or not their concern is justified.”

On-track responses

Thinking about why an interviewer may have asked a question can help an applicant formulate a suitable response that eases worries without divulging unnecessary personal information. “You should never point blank refuse to answer a question because the refusal itself will be construed as a ‘red flag,'” says Patrice Rice, author of “How to Interview” and president of the recruiting firm Patrice & Associates in Dunkirk, Md. “Either the employer will think you are confrontational or that you are hiding something. There are ways to handle questions without actually refusing to answer.”

A few to try:

 “I have been working since I was 18 years old, and I have never allowed any personal relationship to interfere with my job. I have great references.”

 “I would prefer to tell you more about my transferrable job skills. What else would you like to know about my skills?”

 “That’s a question I’ve never been asked before in an interview because it is so personal. Perhaps you can explain why you asked it and what kind of information you really want.”

Reconsidering your candidacy

Erin Farrell Talbot of New York City, owner of a freelance consulting business, was taken aback when a prospective client said he didn’t want to hire someone who would become pregnant — and then proceeded to ask if she was planning to have any more children.

Though she politely told him she would “take what God gives me and go from there,” he persisted. Talbot finally told him, “I am a three-dimensional person with many aspects to who I am besides just a worker, and if that question or discussion comes up again, I’ll resign from consideration.”

She landed the job.

“Personal questions are asked by unskilled interviewers,” says Ralph Neal, vice president of educational services at Employers Resource Association (a nonprofit serving small and medium businesses in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana). “This may tell you a bit about the professionalism of the company. Keep that in the back of your mind as you progress through the interview process, and pay close attention to help determine if the company as a whole is unprofessional or simply has a ‘rogue’ manager who needs interview-skills training.”

Richard Deems, a career coach and co-author of “Make Job Loss Work for You,” adds, “If the candidate thinks a question was asked on purpose, and that the organization often asks personal kinds of interview questions, then we advise our clients to quickly think through if they really want to work for that kind of an organization. We coach our candidates to say something like, ‘That’s a very personal question and has no relevance to the position or my abilities to do the job very well.’ Then stop. If the interviewer persists, we suggest the candidate end the interview and leave.”

A final thing Deems recommends after an inappropriate interview: sending a letter to the company’s CEO. Respectable organizations aren’t out to make anyone feel uncomfortable, and giving a heads-up to a higher-up may make a difference in how candidates are treated.

Back

What Clients Say About Patrice & Associates

  • Michael Kunkle helped me out so much!

    I will forever be grateful for him! He sent my resume out and had interviews set up for me the very next morning. I am so excited for this career move and I owe it to him!     -Hailey Morton Michael Kunkle helped me out so much!
  • It was a pleasure working with Eric Coultoff

    Eric Coultoff was extremely helpful to me in obtaining my new career. We worked together on my resume. He prepared me for the interviews. He was timely in his communication, always gave me updates.

    Thank you,
    Mark Denham
    It was a pleasure working with Eric Coultoff
  • Helen Nourai THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!!

    After being COVID laid off in 2020; I spent the next year floundering, and looking for work. I had my resume up on all the different sites, and applied to anything that was even close to a good fit. No luck, and very few calls or email responses. Until one day out of nowhere Helen contacted me. Helen was extremely personable, positive, and prepared. After speaking for some time, completing the initial introductions, and basic information. Helen already had a position in mind for me. I sent her all of my relevant documents, and she worked her magic. Just a couple days later she emailed back my beautifully reworked resume, and double checked that I was ready for her to submit to potential employers. Then things went very fast! The next day on a Tuesday I had 2 phone interviews. Then Thursday another interview with the Director. Helen kept in touch every step of the way; calling even when I had forgotten to keep her posted. Then the General Manager contacted me on a Saturday followed by the VP!! Less than a week after Helen had submitted me I had completed the interview process, and was waiting on an offer pending reference & background checks. Helen, again was in amazing communication with me. Discussing my needs from the offer to ensure that when the offer was made; it included everything I wanted. It worked out exactly like that too! In the midst of the whirlwind offer that was exactly what I wanted (something I've never experienced before), and all the different company leaders reaching out to me. Helen was right there with me too. Checking in, sharing in my excitement, and giving me all her congratulations. Again, I had never experienced a hiring process with this much of a personal touch before ever! Definitely never one that was this smooth, and fast. If the Company went a day not talking to me, Helen was on it and reaching out to push the process forward.
    13 months of the unconscionable COVID under employment; with all the stress, worry, and insecurity, doing anything and everything to scrape together as many dollars as possible, to finally land a dream position that is a perfect fit, in my ideal location, industry, and salary. It is all still so unbelievable, and I know Helen was more than a major player. She was the key! The difference maker! I cannot express my level of gratitude for her help, and perseverance. Helen is the most gifted recruiter I have ever interacted with, and should I ever be looking for work, Helen will absolutely be my first call.
    Much Gratitude,
    Ben Whetstone
    Helen Nourai THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!!
  • Jonathan Litt is a wonderful person and great recruiter!

    Thank you for all the assistance you provided me during my job search. I appreciate the information and advice that Johnathan Litt had given, as well as the connections you have shared with me. Your expertise and help have been invaluable during this.  I’ll never forget your help and your friendship, you are one and only one, thanks again.
    Sincerely,
    Shahriar Lou Mehrdad
    Jonathan Litt is a wonderful person and great recruiter!
  • I’m still in awe of Gary Kinsinger's abilities!

    It has been such an honor to work with Patrice & Associates, but more specifically with Gary Kinsinger. I’ve worked with recruiters in the past, however none as detail oriented and diligent as Mr. Kinsinger. From the moment he initially reached out to me, all the way to my first day in my new position, Gary was and is still very present in making sure my comfort and needs are met. I truly can’t put into words how beyond grateful I am to have worked with Gary. And with no doubt in my mind would recommend his services to anyone in the market. Gary matched me with the role of my dreams in just one and a half weeks. Thank you so much, Gary Kinsinger!
    Best,
    Angela L DeFalco
    I’m still in awe of Gary Kinsinger's abilities!