Navigating an Awkward Interview

How to dodge inappropriate questions with savvy

InterviewDiversityParalegal Katerina Canyon walked into a job interview only to be asked if she had a problem with spousal abuse. (She didn’t.)

Etiquette expert Angelo Ellerbee was asked if he was gay during a job interview. (He is, “but it has nothing to do with my job experience,” he says.)

Denise Felder recalls one job interview she spent dodging questions about her dreadlocks and problems in the inner city. (She lives in a suburb.)

“Living in an area without a lot of black folks, I have to choose my battles,” saysFelder, a Minnesota-based job coach. “It’s sometimes difficult to set boundaries without seeming hostile.”

Most interviewers stick to job-related questions. But let’s face it: Some are socially awkward, untrained, rude, or even offensive. If you’re stuck with that interviewer, consider these tips:

Know what’s legal. Some questions aren’t just inappropriate, they’re illegal, said Cheryl Palmer, a Silver Springs, Maryland career coach. Among them are:

–Race and ethnicity (including asking where your parents were born)
–Sexual orientation
–Marital status or the number of children you have;
–Age;
–Political affiliation
–Religion

That means you have a responsibility to avoid these topics as well, Palmer said.

Answer the deeper question. It’s tempting to point out the illegal question, but that’s likely to ruin your chances at the job and send ripples through your career network.  Instead, “answer the question behind the question,” said Palmer.

If the interviewer asks if you are planning to have children, she said, what he probably wants to know is if you’re overloaded with responsibilities already.

“I’m very committed to my career and I don’t have any personal commitments that would interfere with my ability to get the job done,” Palmer suggests as an answer. “That’s all they really need to know. And believe me, even if they didn’t realize a question was inappropriate before, after that answer, they’ll get it.”

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