Careers & Employment Information

Hey, You Cant Ask Me That! (How to Respond to Inappropriate Job Interview Questions)

I received the following questions from a visitor to my website recently: "How should I respond to inappropriate questions such as: (1) Do you have a stable home life? (2) Tell me about your personal situation. Are these inappropriate questions? It has been so long since I interviewed for a job, your suggestions about the most helpful responses would be appreciated!"

Those are, indeed, inappropriate questions that should NOT be asked at an interview.

Various federal, state, and local laws regulate the questions a prospective employer can ask you. An employer's questions - on the job application, in the interview, or during the testing process - must be related to the job for which you are applying.

That does not mean, however, that you will never be asked inappropriate questions. Some companies have poor HR support, some interviewers are untrained and unaware of inappropriate or illegal questions, and some even ask them knowing they should not.

You won't have much chance of getting the job if you respond to such questions by saying, "Hey, that's an inappropriate question. You can't ask me that!"

So you have a few options. First, you can answer the question. Even if it's inappropriate to ask, there's nothing that says you can't answer it. If you choose to do so, realize that you are giving information that is not job-related. You could harm your chances by giving the "wrong" answer.

Or you could respond with something like, "How would my answer to that question directly relate to my ability to perform in this position?" If you keep your tone non-confrontational, courteous and upbeat, they may realize they've goofed by asking such a question without getting upset at you for pointing out their mistake. Depending on how they respond, you may feel more comfortable answering.

The best strategy, I believe, is to figure out and address their TRUE CONCERN. When they ask something like, "Do you have a stable personal life?" they may be trying to protect themselves from a bad situation that they've had to deal with in the past (former employee whose personal problems interfered with his/her ability to do the job). So what they really want to know is, will YOU be a reliable employee who can be counted upon to show up and do your job effectively, regardless of any personal problems you may have.

So without directly answering their question, try to address their underlying concern. In this instance you might say, "My career is very important to me. I'm fully committed to performing at my highest level at all times, and don't allow any kind of distractions to interfere with that. I'll deliver the results you're looking for."

If you're not sure what their true concern is, ask something like "Could you please rephrase or elaborate on your question? I want to make sure I address your concern."

Please realize that many interviewers are untrained and therefore unaware that a question they might ask to break the ice -- such as "Do you have any kids?" -- is inappropriate. Yes, this question may be an attempt to determine if you have child-care issues that could interfere with your job... but it's MORE likely that the interviewer is innocently trying to find something he/she has in common with you.

In the end, it's basically a judgment call on your part. If you feel the interviewer has no legitimate reason to ask an inappropriate question, and you do not want to answer it, say "I'm sorry, but I don't see how that has any relevance to my ability to do this job." You might run the risk of losing the job, but if your gut instinct is telling you there's something amiss, you wouldn't want to work for that person anyway.

Here's a list of some questions -- the wrong way, and the right way, to obtain legitimate information:

Inappropriate: Are you a U.S. citizen?
OK: Are you authorized to work in the United States?

Inappropriate: How old are you?
OK: Are you over the age of 18?

Inappropriate: What's your marital status? Do you have children?
OK: Would you be able and willing to work overtime as necessary?

Inappropriate: How much do you weigh? Do you have any disabilities?
OK: Are you able to perform the physical duties required in this job, with or without reasonable accommodations?

Inappropriate: Have you ever been arrested?
OK: Have you ever been convicted of _____? (The crime should be reasonably related to the performance of the job in question.)

Bonnie Lowe is author of the popular Job Interview Success System and free information-packed ezine, "Career-Life Times." Find those and other powerful career-building resources and tips at her website:

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