How to answer inappropriate job interview questions

I don’t know about you, but I find job interviews a tad bit intimidating. Because I am such a perfectionist, I put myself under a great deal of pressure to perform and present the best version of myself to the panel or potential employer.

Having being in permanent employment for over 12 years, I have sat through a fair number of job interviews. Some were really good, and I have had one or two that were not that great. We always hear about how candidates are not adequately prepared for interviews, or not appropriately dressed etc., however we seldom hear about just how ill-prepared interviewers – themselves – can be. I experienced this once. Not only did this gentleman use an authoritative tone when speaking  (speaking down to me), he asked why I had so many roles on my CV. First of all, I did not have many roles on my CV. I had 3 roles within the same organisation. I politely advised him that if he looked closely, he will note that I was employed by Company A for 7 years; and had worked my way up the organisation. I had, in fact, been promoted – which is a good thing. It appeared as though he was determined to find errors or shortcomings on my CV. In my view, he hadn’t actually taken the time to peruse my CV prior to the interview. He was browsing through it at that moment.

Each of these experiences – whether good or bad – have somehow added value to my career journey.

As if the interview process wasn’t anxiety-ridden enough, job seekers must stay vigilant for the occasional inappropriate question(s).

You know, those subtly awkward questions that make you cringe and leave you at a loss for words.

Sometimes, hiring managers are not HR specialists; they are simply looking for a talented person to join the team. In the quest to hire a colleague, they might ask off-putting or inappropriate interview questions. The gentleman I referred to above was a manger, quite senior. I’m not convinced he has the necessary “HR skills”, however. Having a managerial position does not automatically make you suitable to conduct interviews.

Recruitment experts, Glassdoor, have provided a few examples of subtly inappropriate interview questions that should cause you to raise an eyebrow of concern.

Example 1: “Many of our employees are young guys who put in 14 hours days. Are you up for that kind of challenge?”

Why It Is Inappropriate: Any questions that dig into your age, race, national origin, gender, religion, marital status and sexual orientation are off-limits. It is a violation of the Employment Equity Act to discriminate against job applicants on a number of arbitrary grounds including race, gender, pregnancy, age and numerous others.

How to Handle: Job search expert for The Balance Alison Doyle said: “Hiring managers are allowed to ask whether you can handle the workload and the schedule. When responding, discuss how you’ve worked in the past, what type of schedule was involved, and explain how you can handle the challenges of this role.

Remember, if long hours aren’t what you’re looking for you don’t have to take the job if you get an offer.

Example 2: “Congratulations on returning to the workforce. Given your family, do you need a flexible schedule? Are you planning to have more children?”

Why It Is Inappropriate: A question about family should be a no-no but, alas, a naive interviewer, or worse, one that does not value women in the workplace may still ask them.

How to Handle: A polite way to respond to questions about children is to answer that you’ll be able to perform all the duties of the position.

It’s answering with a non-answer, but this can be more diplomatic than refusing to answer. The interviewer may not be aware that they shouldn’t ask, and it’s best to keep the conversation positive and focused on your qualifications and skills. While many parents may be tempted to discuss flexible work schedules in an initial round of interviews, Doyle cautions against jumping the gun.

It’s better to stay that you’re available to work the normal schedule for the job than it is to ask for flexibility this early in the hiring process.

Example 3: “We like our employees to look and carry themselves a certain way. Do you think you will be able to set your financial hardships aside to rise to the occasion of working here?”

Why It Is Inappropriate: While it is discussed far less than race or gender in the workplace, white- and blue-collar workers alike can face socio-economic discrimination.

How to Handle: A very difficult part of the interview process is what we can’t see — the way we’re being judged by appearances. Unfortunately, our culture often has unspoken class rules that we learn somewhat indirectly growing up. Anytime you’re interviewing for a job, it’s a great idea to learn all about the company and the culture.

“Do your best to dress in a way that the company and the hiring manager can relate to. If you have the misfortune of being asked a question like this one, put a positive spin on it. Say something like, ‘You know, one of the great things about my background is that I have a track record of success working with diverse groups of people. I’m confident I will succeed in this role because of my skills and experience.’”

Example 4: 

“When did you graduate from university?”

Why It Is Inappropriate: This one is a roundabout way that some interviewers try to hone in on a candidate’s age. Again, age discrimination is protected against in South African labour laws.

How to Handle: “If you’re asked interview questions about when you graduated or your age, you have a few options for responding. You could answer the question, even though it shouldn’t be asked, if you think that your response won’t hinder your chances of getting a job offer,” advised Doyle.

“Another tactic is to deflect the question and say that when you graduated won’t impact your ability to perform on the job. A third option is to mention you’d be glad to answer, but you’re not sure why the interviewer needs to know. That could get you out of giving a direct response. At the least, you’ll discover why you were asked and can opt to respond – or not.”

I trust the above will equip you on how to handle anything that comes your way. Wishing you all the best in your career during these uncertain times.

Keep well,





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