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.

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