How to Handle Inappropriate Interview Questions

Some interviewers may ask awkward--but not illegal--questions.

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Alison Green
A reader writes:

I had an interview for a job today. It's my first interview in 14 years as I've been in my present job that long. I was feeling a little rusty. I researched interview questions, practiced answers, and felt well prepared. Then out of nowhere I was asked, "Tell me about your children."

Immediately I wondered: How is this relevant? How can I tie this in with my skills and abilities? Are they wondering if I'll need to take a lot of time off? How did they know I have children? Is this a trick question? It's the only question I stumbled on and I feel like I didn't answer properly. I told their ages and briefly described each of them and assured the interviewer that being a mother wouldn't take away from my abilities on the job. I said, "um, uh, er" a little too much. What should I have said?

Ugh.

First let me say that there's a widespread but inaccurate belief that it's illegal for an interviewer to ask about your religion, national origin, marital status, number of children, etc. In fact, in most states, asking these questions is not illegal (exceptions are made in questions about disabilities). What is illegal is basing a hiring decision on the answers to these questions. Therefore, since the employer can't factor in your answers, there's no point in asking them, and smart interviewers don't.

[See 9 insider secrets to getting hired.]

But when you run into an interviewer who asks anyway, what do you do? It's tricky, because often the person really isn't trying to screen you out illegally, but rather is making small talk and doesn't realize that they're treading on risky ground. If you respond with guns blazing, attempting to educate the interviewer on employment law, you can ruin the rapport that's key to a successful interview. On the other hand, you're entitled to not want to get into topics that most people consider off-limits.

But while it's certainly your prerogative to make an issue out of it, on a practical level, you need to decide if it's a battle you feel like fighting or not.

[See 6 things you learn at the job interview.]

Fortunately, there's a third option too: Figure out what the interviewer is getting at with the question, and answer that instead. So, if you think they're concerned that parenthood will get in the way of your job performance, speak directly to that: "There's nothing that would interfere with my ability to work the hours needed to get the job done." Or, if you want to soften it a bit: "I do have kids, and they're great, but please know that there's nothing that would interfere with my ability to work the hours needed to get the job done."

And, as always, remember that interviews are a two-way street. If something smells bad in an interview, that's something you can use in making an employment decision, too.

Alison Green is the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results. She is chief of staff for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit lobbying organization, where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.