Thankfully most interviewers are professional and know the limits of the law but on occasion job seekers will discover that there are employers who are so desirous of personal information about you that they are willing to ask not just sensitive and stupid questions but questions that are certainly illegal. Of course there are many ways to skin a cat so job seekers must be careful that you don’t provide information you prefer not being revealed.
Probably the easiest way to dig deeper into a person’s background is for an interviewer to ask the routine and mundane question “Tell me about yourself?” Unknowingly you can provide all the information a potential employer can want just by not being prepared for such a question. If your response is something like: “After graduating college in 1994 I worked for a few years at ABC Company prior to meeting my future wife – Gertrude. We have 2 children, a girl and a boy and my hobbies include playing golf in my Catholic Church Wednesday night league and providing volunteer work for the Democratic Party.” By your own mouth you have provided your age, marital status, number of children, religion and political party and all above board and all very legally.
Of course age is a protected class. Age rarely comes into play unless you look too young for the position – my first CEO job was at age 26 and I grew a beard to look older; or if you are a mature candidate for a position – I shaved the beard off once my youth was no longer in doubt.
Other protected categories include your marital status or more importantly your sexual preference and religious beliefs. I guess to a certain extent in a one on one in-person interview it becomes less likely anyone is going to ask gender or racial questions since it is more obvious to determine those answers. Of course revealing one’s political beliefs may or may not be a determinant for success in a job interview but why would you want to muddy the waters! If you will be representing a trade association it would be more likely that they are more business oriented and probably are more prone to a republican philosophy while it is probably safe to say that many philanthropics and labor unions would be more of the progressive persuasion – but not always.
So what does one do if you are asked a question that you feel uncomfortable to answer or just feel is either illegal or none of their bleeping business? Many experts believe a joke like “Boy, that is an interesting question that no one has ever asked me before – why did you?” or simply try to transition to another topic without ever answering the question is the way to go. It will take a determined interviewer to once again attempt for you to answer such a question if detoured the first time. If the interviewer persists in asking an irrelevant and possibly illegal question you must personally consider whether you really want to work for such an organization. Don’t make an issue of it but be forthright in not revealing information that you feel is not relevant to the interview or your candidacy for the position.
Of course most interviewers are gracious and will never cross the line of appropriateness but occasionally you will run into someone, knowingly or unknowingly who will push the envelope. In today’s world of background checks, drug testing, credit checks and social media you wonder why anyone even needs to ask such questions?
Dr. Ronald L. Krannich in a Washington Post April 11, 2003 article provided 38 questions that he suggested are sensitive, illegal and stupid. Here are just a few of those:
1) Are you able to work overtime, evenings and weekends?
2) How do you feel about attending conferences with (men) (women)?
3) What child care arrangements have you made?
4) What type of position does your spouse have?
5) Do you think you can supervise (men) (women), and how do you think they will react?
6) This job has always been handled by a (man) (women) in the past. Do you think you can handle it?
7) Are you willing to put career interests before self-interests?
8) By the way, would you mind telling me: “Just how old are you?” or the alternative “What year did you graduate from college?”
9) Where were you born?
10) Are you living with someone?
11) What holidays do you celebrate?
12) Have you ever been arrested?
13) Are you on medications?
14) Do you enjoy a drink with dinner? Or the alternative at a dinner interview – please feel free to order a drink.
15) Do you have any debts or college loans? Or the alternate: Did you pay for your own college or did you take out loans?
16) How much do you weigh?
17) Have you ever sued your employer?
18) What do you think about romance in the office?
19) Do you own or rent your home?
20) What church do you attend?
Preparing for a job interview can be difficult at best but it certainly behooves every candidate to contemplate all possibilities. Sensitive, illegal and stupid questions are just a minor element of the process but you must be prepared to answer even the stupidest of questions on occasion. Your reactions to such an episode can speak volumes about your character and personality. An experienced individual will take such a situation in stride and will be even more determined to emphasize why you are the right person for this position.
Dan Borschke is a Certified Association Executive who has been a CEO for 3 distinct trade associations in his career. He currently is between positions and has written more than 50,000 words or 70 blogs on the topics of job search and career transition. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.