How to Respond When an Interviewer Crosses the Line
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In anticipation of the book’s release on May 17, we’re sharing some of our career wisdom. First up? Our advice on how to handle the trickiest of interview questions.
The interview process is always stressful. You prepare for how to answer difficult questions like Why did you leave your last job? and Why do you think you would be a good fit for this position? But it's rare that we prepare for how not to answer a question. Whether through lack of experience or a manipulative agenda, hiring managers often ask questions that are borderline inappropriate or entirely illegal. What country are you from? Are you married? Do you drink socially? These are all illegal for a hiring manager to ask any interviewee. Scroll through to find out how to respond when an interviewer crosses the line.
Age: Sure, How old are you? may seem like a much easier question than Where do you see yourself in five years?, but it's actually not okay for a hiring manager to ask you that during an interview. Age discrimination is a big problem. "Some hiring managers discriminate outright against older workers and ask this question to figure out if they're approaching retirement age," says Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant. Others discriminate against young employees, asking about their age or graduation year to see just how low to make their salary offer. When asked something about your age or graduation year, change the conversation by saying something like I have a great deal of experience. Are you asking this for a particular reason that I should be aware of? I want to be in tune with every job requirement. This type of answer guides the line of questioning away from the inappropriate age discrimination potential and more about the requirements of the job at hand. "You can view this as an opportunity that will speak volumes as to the integrity of the hiring manager, as well as the firm's practices and unspoken policies," Taylor says about the chance to point out the discriminatory nature of an interview question.
Gender: A lot of hiring managers infuse their questions with gender bias, whether they mean to or not. For instance, working mothers may be asked, How would you handle managing a team of all men? Nothing about gender should ever be asked in a job interview. But if you are presented with a gender-biased question like this, answer it but drop the gender issue. In this example, express how you are an effective manager—not just of men. Talk about your past experience managing others and any goals your teams have exceeded in the past.
Marital status: It is common for hiring managers to view married interviewees as more stable and less likely to leave the job after a short period of time. However, any questions related to your family status are technically illegal. The next time you are asked something like Are you planning on getting married anytime soon?, respond with an answer like You know, I'm not quite there yet. But I am very interested in the career paths at your company. Can you tell me more about that? This kind of answer steers the topic away from family planning and shows the hiring manager how committed you are to a future at the company.
Religion: An employer may be interested in your religious practices to figure out which holidays and times of the week you will be unable to work. However, there is a big difference between asking Do you go to church on Sunday mornings? and Can you work on Sunday mornings? If someone does probe into your religious orientation, we suggest answering with a question, like What is the schedule like for the position? This gives you an opportunity to assure the hiring manager of your availability while reinforcing the need to separate your personal life from your qualifications for the job.
Nationality: In America, it is illegal for employers to ask about potential employees' citizenship, nationality, or first language. In fact, the only question allowed about that is Are you legally authorized to work in the U.S.? If you are asked Where are you from? or Where were you born?, you can deflect and say something like Well, I've lived a lot of places, but I'm legally allowed to work in the U.S., if that's what you're asking. If you think that perhaps it's a friendly mistake, answer with something like New York. Where are you from?
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Have you experienced an inappropriate job interview? How did you navigate difficult or illegal questions? Share with us in the comments.