Posted December 19, 2013 by

When Questions Get Personal: How to Handle Inappropriate Job Interview Questions

A business woman asking questions to candidate in an interview

A business woman asking questions to candidate in an interview. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

When you’re in a job interview, you can expect to be asked numerous questions about your professional experience, your education, and what you bring to the table as a potential employee at an organization. You may also expect to get thrown some curveball questions designed to reveal your work style and how you would fit into a company’s culture.

In some cases, however, you may be asked extremely personal questions during a job interview that you don’t expect — such as questions about your race, age, marital status, sexual orientation, religion, or whether or not you have children or plan to. These questions are not only highly uncomfortable for job seekers to hear, but in some cases they are also illegal for hiring managers to ask as well.

Why hiring managers ask inappropriate interview questions

Although being asked about your personal life can put you on the spot, the good news is that in most cases, the hiring manager is not asking the question in a malicious or discriminatory way. Oftentimes, if just boils down to ignorance: In smaller companies that don’t have a human resources department, the interviewer may be completely unaware that these kinds of questions are out of bounds. Likewise, in larger companies, some interviewers may not have been trained by the H.R. department about what questions to avoid during an interview.

In most cases, says Linda Pophal, Owner and CEO of Strategic Communications, LLC, the interviewer is actually trying to elicit legitimate information related to the job, but is just unaware of how to word the question properly. For example, when a hiring manager asks whether or not a job candidate has children, they may really be talking about scheduling issues that may arise at some point.

“A hiring manager might be concerned that child care needs might keep a young, female employee from showing up to work on time, or missing work regularly,” she said. “But instead of speculating about the various reasons the employee may not be able to meet the job requirements, they should simply focus on the job requirements.”

Another common reason that inappropriate questions are asked during an interview is because of the banter that naturally occurs in a conversation — particularly before the interviewer starts officially asking questions about the job. During this time, you may engage in harmless chitchat that can easily lead to personal questions not related to the job. Also, in some cases, an interviewee may actually say something that leads to an inappropriate question. For example, if you walk into a hiring manager’s office and see a wedding picture, you may innocently ask if she recently got married. This can easily lead the interviewer to ask you questions about your marital status and other inappropriate topics.

“When you do that, you’re getting into a whole different realm of conversation and dialogue that really isn’t going to be appropriate. But you’re protected as a candidate in this situation. You can say whatever you want, but you’re opening up a door that, even though hiring managers shouldn’t walk through it, makes inappropriate conversation more accessible to them,” said Dan Markin, President of The Dan Markin Company. “It’s best to keep the conversation as professional, and as pertinent to the job, as possible”

How to handle inappropriate job interview questions

When you’re asked personal information during a job interview, it can take you aback and leave you at a loss for words. These tips can help you handle these inappropriate questions.

Don’t feel obligated to answer an inappropriate question. Even though you want to put your best foot forward during your interview, remember that personal information is not fair game. If someone asks you an inappropriate question, a good way to get the interview back on track is to respond “why do you ask?.”

“Hopefully that will lead interviewers down the path of providing you with a job-related reason for the question,” said Pophal. “So if they say ‘do you have children you have to get ready in the morning?,’ hopefully they will follow up by saying, ‘we want to make sure that you’ll be able to get to work on time.'”

File a complaint. If you don’t get the job and you believe it was because of some personal information that came up during the interview, you can file a discrimination claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or with the employment board in your state. These agencies will investigate your claim and if they determine that you were passed over for the job in favor of a less-qualified applicant, you may be able to receive damages from that company.

If you don’t want to go that route, you still don’t have to suffer in silence. You may want to consider complaining to the company’s human resources department, or, if it’s a smaller company, to the owner of the organization. This way you can let someone know how you were treated, which will hopefully save other candidates from the same experience.

Think about your options. If you were asked an improper interview question and you still end up getting the job, you may want to consider if that’s the type of organization you really want to work for.

“If you don’t get a good vibe in the first meeting with that person, it’s like a first date — they’re never going to act any better than how they do when you first meet them,” said Markin. “If it starts out bad, it’s probably not going to get any better — so you’re probably just better off to cut your loses.”

By Kenya McCullum

About the Author:

Kenya McCullum writes about education and careers for several websites, including

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Posted in Advice for Candidates, Career Advice, Interviewing, Job Search, Personal Life Issues | Tagged Tagged , , , , , , , , ,