How to Respond to Inappropriate Interview Questions

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Interviewing for a job can make you feel vulnerable. You are trying to project your best self while you absorb observations about the team that’s hosting you. You want to be open, agreeable, and warm, but you also expect your interviewers to respect your rights and your privacy.

They certainly don’t have free reign to pose whatever questions strike them. But what questions are fair game and what’s off limits? And what’s your recourse if an interviewer asks a question that falls out of bounds? How do you address the query and continue moving forward in a poised and professional manner?

Here’s What You Need to Know
Prescreen Reveal
It’s understandable that prospective employers would want to learn more about candidates through prescreening. Applications can be simple, requesting basic contact information, or very detailed, asking candidates to submit to aptitude tests, requiring salary histories (an illegal query in a growing number of areas), and salary expectations. This can feel off-putting to candidates, as this is a lot of information to submit to an organization for which you do not work and for which you have not yet even secured an interview.

So what’s a job seeker to do? If you really want the job, do you have to submit to this pre-qualification battery of questions?

Debbie Hatke, talent acquisition and retention manager, at the University of Cincinnati advises:

“[T]he screening process for applicants has gotten more intensive over the years as each employer is trying to find the best candidates to fill their jobs. But I would never defer providing information requested of an applicant. At UC, for example, we request all applicants provide a Diversity and Inclusion Statement in order for their application to be completed… Hiring is a two-way street. The employer is selling their position to as many potential applicants as possible to attract the best possible candidate. The applicants in turn are selling themselves to the employer in an attempt to stand out and be chosen for further scrutiny. If you really want the job you should be willing to put in some time to provide the information requested by the employer.”

The Composition of an Interview Team
Search committees are generally comprised of HR professionals along with managers and team members from the unit with the open position. HR professionals, by the nature of their roles, tend to be trained to understand what questions they can legally pose, as well as those that are off limits. Most institutions prepare non-HR search committee members for their roles, so that they understand this distinction as well.

Hatke explains the practice in her professional culture: “At UC we do have a diverse mix of individuals on our search committees. Each search committee is asked to meet with the Office of Equity, Opportunity and Access (OEOA) at the beginning of their process to review proper recruiting techniques and review OEOA requirements … We are fortunate at UC to have an HR Academy that all individuals with HR responsibilities must attend to level set on the basics of HR. We cover elements of the hiring experience that include writing a compelling job posting, identifying competencies, and using behavioral-based interview questions (BBIs). We do our best, but with a decentralized model it is a challenge to make sure everyone is playing from the same sheet of music.”

The Content of a Question
Interviewers can ask a wide range of questions about candidates’ job histories, professional values, decision-making, and experience. But they can’t pose questions that might yield answers which could lead to discriminatory hiring practices.
This is not appropriate at any point in the interview: during pre-screening or phone interviews, during the ice-breaking small talk that often precedes an interview, or during the interview itself. How can you identify a question that crosses the line? Hatke explains:

“Google ‘illegal interview questions’ and you get over six million examples. But there’s really one easy rule of thumb for knowing if something is legal or not – the question must be job-related. If it doesn’t pertain to the job it shouldn’t be asked … there are seven basic categories an employer should avoid:

  • Age
  • Race, ethnicity, or color
  • Gender (sex) – including gender identity
  • Country of national origin or birth place
  • Religion
  • Disability status (currently or previously)
  • Marital or family status or pregnancy”

Responding to Inappropriate Questions
Many institutions are careful and thorough in preparing their staff to conduct interviews, but inappropriate questions can still slip through. When this happens, there is no textbook right or wrong way to proceed. You have to decide what’s best for you.

Hatke reflects: “I’ve been asked inappropriate interview questions before and I know that awful feeling and the pressure of whether or not to answer. It’s up to the candidate as to whether or not to respond directly. If uncomfortable you can always decline to answer with ‘Can you please rephrase the question, I don’t understand the connection to this role.'”
Hatke explains that she was asked about her religion in a job interview. She notes: “I later learned the intent of the question was to segue into a description of the culture and staff and that I would probably be invited to church picnics and religious events by other employees. I deflected the original question by stating ‘I get along with everyone, regardless of their beliefs. I do attend services during my off time, but I don’t mix religion with work.'”

For Hatke, trying to keep things even-keeled and professional proved to be the most comfortable way to handle the situation. She explains: “Some might suggest you indicate the question is prohibited by law and ask to move on, however, with my personality I know that’s a bit too confrontational and would prefer to work around it rather than make someone else feel uncomfortable or embarrassed about the misstep.”

It’s a judgment call on the part of the interviewee. You have to weigh how much you want the job and what you think the misstep means about the professional culture. But it’s difficult to think through all of that in the moment, so graciously side-stepping it so that you can finish your interview and get out of the situation to reflect may prove a sound strategy.

What it suggests about a potential employer
The awkward interview situation may make you think twice about whether or not this employer could be a fit for you. Hatke reflects: “In the end, you have to ask yourself if you would feel comfortable working for this company – whether they are clueless, deliberate, or unethical about asking the illegal question.”

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