Handling inappropriate interview questions


You're in the midst of an interview and everything is running smoothly. Your answers are fluent and succinct and you begin to feel confident in your abilities and capacity to fit the job requirements. Then, out of the blue your potential employer knocks you down like a ton of bricks with one simple question. Harmless as it might seem, this question is asked with a broad smile and inquiring eyes. So, how could you handle inappropriate questions at interviews?

 Innocent or indecent?

You want to answer it. In fact, you feel so relaxed that you could blurt out your life story. But really, 'am I married and considering starting a family?' - is this really any of his or her business? What has it got to do with my strength and ability? How should I answer? Oh, maybe he or she's just being friendly?

The question may seem innocent, and most of the time, it is truly asked in innocence. For example, an interviewer may ask a personal question such as, 'Do you have a boyfriend?', 'Are you planning to get married?' or 'Are you and your girlfriend living together?'. While not technically illegal, such questions are certainly inappropriate, and may cause you to feel uncomfortable, or even angry.

Whilst you must quickly decide whether to answer or tactfully decline, your primary aim should remain at the forefront of your mind - you are here to get the job. A tactful approach should therefore be adopted. In most genuine cases, the interviewer will register the fact that he has gone 'out of bounds' and quietly back off. For instance, you might reply, 'I try not to get into personal issues during interviews.'

You may think that you are sitting opposite a nosey or inexperienced interviewer, but if you make him or her feel ashamed of his words and actions, you might find yourself in a compromising situation. Giving the company the benefit of the doubt for the duration of the interview, and then deciding later whether it's a place where you'd want to work may be the best option.

 Illegal questions

First of all, it's important to understand the difference between an illegal question and a criminally liable question. Even though a question or comment may have been stated in an illegal form, it does not necessarily mean that a crime has been committed.

So, what is an illegal question? The Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act forbid employers from discriminating against any person on the basis of sex, race, nationality or disability. By knowing what types of inquiries are legal and illegal, and learning the techniques to counteract improper questions, you'll be able to respond effectively when faced with this difficult situation.

Handling illegal questions

So, how do you handle a situation in which an insensitive or discriminatory question is asked relating to sex, race, or disability? Your response will be affected by many variables, including whether the candidate immediately recognises that the question is illegal.

Here are some examples of how to answer 'on-the-spot' inappropriate questions, such as 'Do you plan to get married and have children?' or 'Where were you born?':

  • Politely say that you do not wish to answer such an inappropriate or illegal question
  • Answer the question by saying, 'I'm sorry, I believe I missed the point, I do not understand the relevance of this question to my working career.'
  • Respond to the question without any reference to its appropriateness
  • Ignore the improper question, and turn the focus around to the concern that lies behind the question. For example, you might say 'I think what you are asking is...', and then select the answer you wish the interviewer to know

It is important to understand that although you would be justified in refusing to answer an inappropriate question, doing so might cost you the job. Therefore, the only question that remains is 'Do I want to work in an environment that might subject me to such practices or assault my dignity?'

Be in control

It should be noted that just because an illegal question has been asked does not mean that a crime has been committed. Although illegal questions often arise out of genuine interest, be aware of other motivators. For example, they may be testing your behaviour under stress, or acting from a personal or company bias.

Knowing your rights and how to handle improper questions in interviews is of paramount importance. Going to the court of law might be extreme, but it has been know to happen.

Remember, be tactful and you will be in control. Answer in brief and move on to a new topic area, or ignore the question altogether and redirect the discussion toward a different subject.