Helping Clients Handle Inappropriate Interview Questions

Interview Questions

The interview is going along smoothly and your client is feeling confident. Suddenly, he is caught off guard by a blatantly offensive, discriminatory, or illegal question. He is being asked to disclose information that has no relevance whatsoever to the position for which he is applying. Somehow, your client must display professionalism in dealing with this “inappropriate question” in the best manner possible.

Many job applicants have learned that in an interview scenario, the key to success is to address every question with a full response that accurately addresses the interviewer’s needs. Consequently, dealing with an inappropriate question becomes a sticky issue. Still, these types of questions seem to come up on a regular basis. Sooner or later, every job seeker will encounter such questions. Ensure that your clients are prepared to respond one way or another.

It’s important to understand that most inappropriate questions are truly asked in ignorance. Unfortunately, many employers do not perform interviews on a regular basis. The interviewer may be ignorant of the law or unaware that their question is inappropriate. Many untrained interviewers are genuinely trying to be friendly. The focus of an interview is to determine if  the candidate is right for the job, therefore it is unlikely that the interviewer is intending malice.

Sometimes questions that may seem to discriminate are legitimate and can be legally asked. For example, “Can you speak French fluently?” or “Are you able to lift a 50kg weight?” may well be appropriate in specific situations.

Advise your clients to step back and take a good look at all options before making a rash decision on how to handle the situation. It is important for your clients to not only know their rights, but to be able to respond to any question with dignity. Help them understand that they have control. They can respond in any of the following ways:

  1. Your client can answer the question. If your client chooses to answer, he or she should first examine the question for its intent. Then, after consideration, respond with a brief answer that is applicable to the position being discussed. It is best to then strategically move on to a new topic rather than lingering in a discussion.
  2. Your client can refuse to answer the question. If your client decides not to respond to the question, he or she will need to explain why. The refusal must be worded carefully so that it does present the client as a difficult or challenging potential employee.
  3. Your client can ignore the question altogether. Your client can choose to redirect the discussion toward a new topic. The interviewer may even recognize their blunder and appreciate the candidate’s willingness to put it aside and move on.
  4. Your client can terminate the interview. If the question is blatantly discriminatory and truly offensive to your client, the best option is to end the interview and move on to an employer who will be more respectful of their potential employees.

Here is a list of some subject areas and questions that may be considered inappropriate in an interview scenario. Some of these questions are not necessarily considered illegal, but may show prejudice. Help your clients to be prepared for all scenarios by going through these questions and coaching on the ideal response.

Questions related to citizenship, national origin, race, or ancestry:

  • Can you provide us with a copy of your birth certificate?
  • Are you a Canadian citizen?
  • Where were your parents born?
  • What is your native tongue?
  • Are you Chinese or Japanese?
  • What race are you?
  • What colour is your hair?
  • Is your last name Indian?
  • How long have you been in this country?
  • Do you speak English at home?
  • Are you considered to be part of a minority group?

Questions related to age, gender, sexual preference, marital status, or family decisions:

  • What is your birthday?
  • How old are you?
  • When did you graduate from high school?
  • What is your maiden name?
  • Is your husband employed?
  • Are you divorced?
  • Is that Ms. or Mrs.?
  • Who do you live with?
  • Are you gay?
  • Are you male or female?
  • Does your family approve of your travel?

Questions related to religion:

  • Are you Catholic?
  • What religious holidays do you observe?
  • What is your religious denomination?
  • Do you have any religious affiliations?
  • What church do you belong to?
  • What is the name of your rabbi?

Questions related to physical or mental disabilities, handicaps, body type, health, or medical history:

  • Have you had any recent or past illnesses or operations?
  • Do you have any pre-existing health conditions?
  • Are you on any medications?
  • What was the date of your last physical exam?
  • Do you have any disabilities?
  • How can you work in a wheelchair?
  • Do you have any use of your legs at all?
  • When did you lose your eyesight?
  • Do you need an accommodation to perform the job?
  • How tall are you?
  • How much do you weigh?
  • How is your family’s health?

Questions related to pregnancy, birth control, and childcare:

  • Are you planning on having children?
  • How many kids do you have?
  • What are the ages of your children?
  • When do you plan to have a family?
  • Do you have arrangements for your children while you are at work?
  • Do you have after school care?

Questions related to a criminal record:

  • When was the last time you were arrested?
  • Have you ever been arrested?

As the candidate being interviewed, your client has control over what happens after being asked a question that makes him or her feel uncomfortable. The candidate has the right to decide whether or not to respond to inappropriate questions. No matter what your client decides, remind him or her to remain non-defensive, calm, and professional. Enable the candidate to take a good look at all the options and respond to a sticky situation with an approach that will make him or her come out the winner.

To learn more, register for our Employment Interview Coaching Course and work towards your Certified Interview Strategist (CIS) credential.

Sharon Graham is founder and executive director of Career Professionals of Canada. Committed to setting the standard for excellence in the career development profession, Sharon has authored top-selling paperback publications and textbooks, and has established a range of certificationprofessional developmentcommunity development, and mentoring and award programs. As executive director of CPC, she provides foresight and leadership within the career development sector and ensures that the mandate of CPC is upheld with integrity.

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