Responding to Inappropriate Interview Questions
We all have job interview horror stories. Mine have included interviewing for a gallery communications position where the interviewers spent the hour complaining to one another about how dysfunctional the gallery was, getting ghosted by the HR representative I was supposed to meet with, and having an interview for a retail job consist entirely of taking pictures of me instead of asking any questions about my experience (I could say RIP American Apparel, but I wouldn’t mean it).
A major feature of bad interviews is the inappropriate question. The interviewer asks you something that doesn’t quite feel right, that doesn’t relate to the job, and that makes you divulge something about yourself that you don’t want to (and shouldn’t have to) share. It’s hard to know exactly how to respond to these inappropriate interview questions, especially when you really need a job. And right now, a lot of people really need a job.
At Fractured Atlas, we believe in creating equitable and humane workplaces. That extends beyond just what it’s like to work at a job, it includes the interview process that we’re constantly iterating and improving. We’ll share some strategies to help you respond to inappropriate interview questions in ways that feel honest, safe, and let you interview for jobs from a position of power.
What Kinds of Interview Questions Are Inappropriate or Illegal?
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), interviewers cannot ask you about your age, race, ethnicity, color, gender, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, country of origin, birthplace, religion, disability, marital status, family status, pregnancy, or (in some states) your salary history. These kinds of questions can be used to discriminate during the hiring practice.
An interviewer verges onto inappropriate or illegal territory if they ask you if you are planning on starting a family, the ethnic origins of your last name, or why you use a cane as a mobility device.
They might ask you questions that seem work-related, but are actually not relevant to the role you’re interviewing for. For example, an interviewer might ask you whether you have a car. Unless you’re being hired for a job that explicitly requires a car (delivery, some sales roles), having a car isn’t relevant to the role. It’s relevant that you are consistently able to make it to your job on time, but not how you get there. Asking about a car can be a shorthand way to learn about your class position and what kinds of material access you have.
Inappropriate work questions might come up as a formal question during the interview process, or they might come up more casually. If you’re killing time during a Zoom interview waiting for others to arrive, an interviewer might ask about where you are calling from, what your housing situation is like, who you live with. They might be trying to make conversation, but it also might require you to divulge information that could put your application at risk.
These kinds of questions aren’t fraught for everyone. In particular, if you are a straight, white, cis, Christian, wealthy man. Questions about if you have or are thinking of starting a family hit differently for women than they do for men, and differently still if you know that you want a family and will need to use IVF, surrogacy, or other potentially expensive healthcare technologies. Questions about who you live with or what your housing is like are different for people who are housing insecure than people who own their own homes or apartments, as well as for people who live in queer or polyamorous households. These questions aren’t disqualifying or risky for people with structural privilege, but they can be for people who don’t have those privileges.
Why Do Interviewers Ask Inappropriate Questions?
Why would an interviewer ask you a question that is inappropriate, uncomfortable, or even illegal?
Some might be asking you questions about your ethnicity, sexuality, location, age, gender, etc. for the reasons that these questions are illegal. They might be looking to weed out candidates who have children, who have disabilities or chronic illnesses, who are trans, who are Muslim, or who hold some other identity or aspect that they are discriminating against. It’s entirely possible that an interviewer is asking you these questions because they don’t want to hire someone with a certain identity or who fits in a certain position in our socioeconomic system.
But it’s also possible that the interviewer doesn’t have a bad intention when asking you a question that is ultimately not OK to ask.
Many people who end up interviewing job candidates aren’t trained to interview or hire. They legitimately might not know what is inappropriate and what isn’t. They might just be trying to make conversation or build rapport. Plus, with a massive shift to virtual working (and virtual interviewing), norms of professionalism are in flux. Now, we’re seeing the insides of people’s homes, possibly their pets, roommates, or family in the background of our business meetings.
This isn’t to say that people who are interviewing job candidates don’t have a responsibility to learn how to interview and hire appropriately. But it does mean that not everyone who asks an inappropriate interview question is doing so maliciously.
Responding to Inappropriate Interview Questions
Regardless of the intent, when an interviewer asks you an inappropriate question during an interview, you have to respond in the moment.
You could always decline to answer a question and maybe even acknowledge that the question itself isn’t appropriate. You are within your rights to decline a question, but it can feel risky or impossible. Especially if you really want to work at the place you are interviewing or if you are in dire need of a job, you might not be able to risk appearing hostile or overly critical in case they disqualify you for declining a question.
So, what do you do if you don’t really want to answer a question but feel like you can’t explicitly decline?
One strategy is to ask the interviewer to unpack the question or ask how it’s relevant to the role. This gives them a chance to catch themselves if they need a second to recognize that they asked something off-base. Or, if the question really is important to the role, they can explain how.
You could make a joking deflection away from a question that you don’t want to answer. If you’re asked about your family and you know that you’re planning on pursuing IVF within the next few years, you might not want to tell a potential employer in case you’re seen as someone who is expensive to insure or who is more dedicated to their family than their job (although, honestly, everyone should be more dedicated to their family than their job). You could talk about your problem child plants that wither despite your best efforts or your plans to adopt an elderly parrot. If you’re asked about what holidays you would plan to celebrate, tell them you celebrate every single one. This way, you keep the tone friendly and light without going into something that’s deeply personal and that might end up in job discrimination.
You can gently redirect the question away and try to refocus the interview. If you’re asked about something you don’t want to answer, you can use your response to put the focus back on the knowledge and skills you could bring to the job you’re interviewing for, or for the compensation that the job is offering.
This is what I did when I was asked about my current salary when I was applying for jobs in 2016. I was making $35,000, which in New York was...not nearly sufficient. I was interviewing for a position that would have paid me almost double that. I knew it wasn’t kosher for the recruiter to ask about what I was currently earning and I worried that if I told her how much I made, I would seem less qualified to earn an actual living wage. Or that the company would end up lowballing me below what the salary was listed as, because anything would have been a big improvement on what I was earning. I told the recruiter that I preferred just to focus on the salary proposed and confirmed that it was, in fact, as listed in the job description. In the end, I wasn’t offered the job. I can’t say if it’s because I didn’t answer the question about my current salary, but I still knew that it would have been a bad move on my part to acknowledge that I was earning barely above minimum wage.
You might feel compelled to answer an inappropriate question even if you know it’s not right for an interviewer to ask, and even if it makes you uncomfortable or vulnerable to answer. Sometimes, you just have to get a job. In the end, not every interview process is a good one, and not every workplace is compassionate or humane. Sometimes you just need a paycheck while you look for a position that’s a real fit.
However you choose to respond to inappropriate interview questions, you can do so from a place of power.
Interview From a Place of Power
At its best, interviewing for a job is a two-way street. You should be interviewing the company or organization as much as they are interviewing you. Not only should you be demonstrating that you would be an asset to their team, but they should also be showing you that you want to work with them!
Job hunting doesn’t always feel that way. You might be truly desperate for a job or competing with every other recent college graduate for a select handful of entry-level positions in your chosen field. Instead of feeling like a two-way street, it can feel like you’re pleading your case, at the mercy of the hiring team.
The way that the interviewers behave during an interview process is instructive. Even if they behave badly. It could make you reconsider whether you want that job after all. It could demonstrate that the job is a bad culture fit or might be a toxic work environment.
Interviews can also, of course be an indicator of a positive culture fit! When I was interviewing for this job here at Fractured Atlas, Lauren Ruffin casually tossed off a sentence that started “As a Virgo…” That gave me the strong feeling that I would fit in well at Fractured Atlas. For one thing, as a Capricorn, I love working with fellow Earth signs. For another, it was a tip-off that people at Fractured Atlas could be casual, personal, and bring parts of themselves to work that aren’t always considered “professional” according to a corporate, traditional workplace mindset. She shared a detail about herself without requiring any information from me, and it showed promise about what our potential working relationship could be.
If you don’t have the luxury to decline a job opportunity because the interviewer asked you inappropriate questions, the experience can reframe how you think about that potential job. Instead of seeing it as a dream job you would be blessed to have, you might start to see it as a stepping stone or a temporary position until something better comes along. You might think to yourself that you’ll be stepping into a toxic environment, but that after a year there, you’ll have built enough experience and connections to move on. And then laugh about what a horrible job it was.
Interview processes can show you what a job is like, and even a bad interview can help you learn more about that job. It can force you to be honest with yourself and walk into a new role with clearer eyes.
We aren’t employment attorneys, so while we can offer you some best practices and some ideas, if you have questions about something specific you’ve experienced or are wondering about, we encourage you to connect with legal counsel.
There are plenty of ways to make work more equitable, more open to people who have been shut of industries and jobs. Learning new strategies to spot and respond to inappropriate interview questions is one tactic. Another is speaking openly with colleagues about money.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman lives in New York City and holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley Insights. When she's not interviewing artists or sharing tips for navigating the art world on the Fractured Atlas blog, Nina makes ceramics at Center Point Ceramics Studio, hosts Planet Clambake on Newtown Radio, and is a member of the New Sanctuary Coalition pro-se legal clinic.