Red flag or just a pink one?
May 7, 2012 5:46 PM   Subscribe

How personal is too personal for a job interview question?

I recently had a job interview where one of the questions dealt with a period of unemployment I went through post graduation.

The interview question (after I explained the volunteering and odd jobs that I did during this period): "I supposed your parents must be wealthy?" Now, I don't know what to make of this. I simply said YES, because I found the alternative to be worse.

I guess I just can't imagine a tactful answer to the question. And I can't imagine a justified reason to ask it.

Granted this, is this a sign of things to come? Should I trust my gut? I was terribly hurt by the question and feel this is a bad start to a working relationship. Am I being too sensitive for my own good here?

Please enlighten me, Mefites!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (40 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm not an HR person, but that sounds like a really fighty question, especially in this economy where so many people are looking for work. If I were in a position with multiple offers, something like that would definitely move that company way down on my list, especially if the interviewer was someone I'd have to be working with. That's really tactless.
posted by smirkette at 5:49 PM on May 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Am I being too sensitive for my own good here?

No. I would be quite offended too, though I don't know if I'd have the guts to say "that's none of your business". But that's certainly what I'd be thinking.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 5:51 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wow, that's pretty crass. If this is someone you'd be working for or with, that would make me seriously reconsider if I wanted to work there.
posted by jabes at 5:52 PM on May 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would not want to directly work with someone tactless enough to ask such a question. I'd definitely take it as a red flag.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:52 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am presuming you are in the US. If not please drop a note to the mods via the contact form and we can add that information to your question. Here is a college career services FAQ about illegal interview questions. Having money isn't a "protected class" (the illegal aspect is usually to keep people from being forced to give information to a potential employer that could be used to discriminate against them) but that doesn't mean that those questions aren't out of line, in my opinion, even if they are not illegal. That page has a few suggestions as far as how to graciously not answer. I'd suggest a mild deflection like "Not really" or "What does that have to do with anything?" though if it were me I'd just say "That's not any of your business" and probably either get up and walk out or be crystal clear that I found the question offensive. Sorry you had to deal with that, I don't think you're being oversensitive at all.
posted by jessamyn at 5:54 PM on May 7, 2012 [17 favorites]

Always trust your instinct. The interviewer did something very inappropriate. Next time, please do not answer a question like this because it is absolutely none of their business.

Simply say, "That is something personal and I do not feel comfortable disclosing this information in a professional setting." You have the right to not answer this question. If the person continues to ask inappropriate questions excuse yourself and leave the interview early.

As for how to proceed, if you have other interviews and job offers then discount this one and move on. If they send you an email or call you to let you know that you were offered the job, say ''Thank you for the call/email, but I will be turning this position down because I was uncomfortable with certain interview questions."
posted by livinglearning at 5:55 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

The one time I was asked an inappropriate question in a job interview ("So, are you married? Do you think you'll be getting married soon?") I just let my jaw hang open and then said "Um, what?" Not the most graceful answer, but it got the job done. And yes, definitely a red flag.
posted by KathrynT at 5:55 PM on May 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't worry. It's a shit question, no doubt about it, but everyone does something dumb, you can't judge a person based on seven words (well, sometimes you can, but not this time). The interviewer maybe just had a brainfart. Maybe the interviewer doesn't have anything much to do with your job, and your direct manager will be the most amazing person.
posted by wilful at 5:56 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

OP you should not get in the habit of being offended by job interviewers. It is their job to probe you, take you off your script, and make a logical and useful narrative out of your resume. The ones who actually are enaging you will react to you like a human being, which sometimes means making bad jokes or taking umbrage at something they don't like. When you sit through interviews with someone who plainly couldn't care less about you or your history, you'll know what a bad interview(er) really is.
posted by MattD at 6:00 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was terribly hurt by the question and feel this is a bad start to a working relationship.

Go with that - it's always downhill after that.
posted by mleigh at 6:01 PM on May 7, 2012

As others have said, I think the question is out of bounds and not appropriate, and if I were you, I'd consider whether I even wanted to work there.

That said, though, if you're going to be going on job interviews, I think you can reasonably expect to hear more questions about this period of unemployment, odd jobs and volunteering--having some good answers, and being able to spin that kind of question into a response about how you're a self-starter or you don't like being idle or whatever, will make you a better interviewer, whether you go on to accept a job offer or not.
posted by box at 6:02 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's a horrible, rude, ignorant question, so by all mens "get in the habit" of finding bullshit like that offensive.

However, if you were talking to an HR person, bear in mind *you probably don't have to actually work with that person.* HR people are known for being... not the best. If the job seems good otherwise, don't reject it out of hand.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:02 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yow! That was wildly inappropriate. A vague but positive answer might have been something like "My parents were supportive as long as I was busy doing something productive that was moving me toward my goals.". I'm thinking that the person who asked that question had some sort of chip on their shoulder and had pegged you assume sort of trust fund kid who would come on board with a sense of entitlement. You don't want to work there.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:03 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Big weird red flag, and the kind of question that sounds like you are being filtered -- as someone who will take a lower salary because you have "family money" or as someone they don't want because you are "privileged".

It's really hard to think fast on your feet with stuff like this. But something along the lines of what KathrynT said, "What? Pardon? What do you mean?" kind of shuts it down.
posted by thinkpiece at 6:05 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've gotten actual illegal questions asked a few times (and one time did it myself, and was very embarrassed later when I realized what I had done), and have had lots of so-so questions asked. I'd let it roll, and think about better ways to present the information (in case you really are making yourself sound like an entitled and unselfreflective rich kid rather than someone with neat experiences) as well as better ways to answer the question in case it comes up again.

A vague but positive answer might have been something like "My parents were supportive as long as I was busy doing something productive that was moving me toward my goals.".

Personally I'd lie like a rug and say something like "I saved money from my previous job and lived on rice and beans," but maybe my ethics are more flexible that way.
posted by Forktine at 6:05 PM on May 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

FYI - when I got asked about my age in an interview I said, whilst laughing, "oh, you can't ask me that" and he replied, whilst laughing, "oh, you're right I can't ask you that."

So laughing that stuff off but acknowledging that it was stupid is always an option.
posted by mleigh at 6:12 PM on May 7, 2012 [7 favorites]

As a vetren (recent and distant) of both sides of the interview table, I would apply the judgement to how the interviewer or interview panel handle your rejection of an inappropriate question. Any of us can make a mistake, but the follow-up to those kinds of mistakes is what is most important.

If when you politely and firmly reply to such a question that you don't feel the question is appropriate and do not feel comfortable answering, they reply with a gracious apology or genuine recognition of your discomfort, I think you can be reassured they are reasonable potential colleagues.
posted by rumposinc at 6:13 PM on May 7, 2012

From the OP:
Yes, I am in the US
posted by jessamyn at 6:17 PM on May 7, 2012

I would pause thoughtfully, then say, "Pardon me?" in a sincere and inoffensive way.

Gives them an opportunity to rethink the question and you a chance to think about how you want to respond, if they do repeat the question.

Without knowing the interviewer, the company and the context, it is impossible to know if it was a clueless mistake, deliberate attempt to rattle you, or simple a person feeling entitled to be offensive. For me personally, though you have the absolute right to be offended by such a question, I would give them a do-over (in your case, by being very aware during your 2nd interview with the company) before taking offense.
posted by arnicae at 6:18 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

A good way of dealing with these (other than making a joke about red tape and strict regulations, which is definitely one way to go) is to ask the person to clarify the question. "I'm sorry, what exactly did you mean by that?" Say it like you're totally innocent (you have to be good at seeming innocent to pull this off.) Most people don't want to have to repeat a question they know they shouldn't have asked, and if they do repeat it, then by-golly you know you don't want to work with them.

And in defense of HR people - the only wacky questions I have EVER gotten in an interview, or seen asked in someone's interview, were asked by the supervising manager of the position up for filling. I even, finally, got to hear an actual "do you have a family?", which I had previously thought to be a myth in this day and age, thanks to a low-level manager type. I feel like I need to create a Classic EEO Sins bingo card just so I can check that one off.
posted by SMPA at 6:22 PM on May 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Having done *multiple* interviews for a Mega-corp that must remain nameless, I must say... that was really unprofessional and just offensive. What would I do about it? Well, if I thought I was going to get the job, I might not say anything. If you think the interviewer didn't like you personally, and you didn't do anything that we haven't heard here (two sides to every story...) you could pursue it, but keep in mind that they'll just find some other reason to not hire the "troublemaker" and if you need a job, your energies are best focused on more positive pursuits. I guess in closing I would say, would you want to work for a company who allows people like that to interview new hires? Where's there's smoke, there's fire. Might want to look elsewhere.
posted by brownrd at 6:32 PM on May 7, 2012

If you wil be working with this person, or they will be your supervisor, I would have serious concerns about accepting an offer from them. One thing people who hire need to remember is that not only are they interviewing a candidate, but the candidate is interviewing them. If they can't keep their snark aside during the course of an interview, imagine working with them on a committee, or on a time sensitive project. Always trust your gut, you don't have to accept abuse because you want a job. Also, best of luck!
posted by haunted by Leonard Cohen at 7:15 PM on May 7, 2012

I would have said, "Why do you ask?" And then pretty much regardless of the answer I would have said, "Why don't we talk about something else instead?" and then followed that up with a question about the company.
posted by hermitosis at 7:58 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Incidentally, I do think you are right to be put off. Though sometimes interviewers blunder into bad questions by accident -- just like applicants blunder into bad answers. It is a minor warning flag, but could have just been a tactless error.
posted by hermitosis at 7:59 PM on May 7, 2012

The question lacked tact, but don't write the employer off just because of one stupid thing an interviewer said.

A response like, "I'm not really sure how to answer that," followed by silence while you wait for the next question often gets you off the hook in a lot of situations. It also allows the interviewer to save face if they regretted the question escaping their lips the moment they said it.
posted by MoonOrb at 8:38 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

"No, they died."

Meet awkward with ten times more awkward.
posted by flabdablet at 9:56 PM on May 7, 2012 [16 favorites]

"I'm not sure I understand the question. What is it you want to know?"

If the question is repeated verbatim (or essentially so) you can say, "I don't see how that applies here. Can we move on?" Meanwhile you can file this as a red flag about this position. Any company that employs an HR rep who asks that kind of question is an iffy place to work.
posted by La Cieca at 10:34 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding MoonOrb. This question is so far from appropriate that I'm wondering if it was an off-hand remark from a young/inexperienced (perhaps nervous) interviewer. I'm thinking this is more "awkward moment" than "red flag".

Many years ago, I interviewed for a relatively high-profile position with a Chicago suburb that is thought to be progressive/left-of-liberal. I was surprised by the final question, the gist of which was "Is there anything in your life, past or present, that could be potentially embarrassing to the Village if you were offered the position." Since the Village would do a thorough background check before hiring, the interviewer seemed to be seeking answers to questions that cannot be legally asked.

I flashed through memories of my (happily) misspent youth, considered mumbling something about "plausible deniability", and wondered what, exactly, about an employee's personal life might be "embarrassing" to a Village that prides itself on tolerance. After far too long of a pause, I said that I couldn't think of anything.

Given the above, I bet flabdablet would have had a better response.
posted by she's not there at 11:10 PM on May 7, 2012

Walk away. You don't want to work for this person, or any company who has put them in a position to interview prospective hires.
posted by trip and a half at 12:00 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bad and inappropriate question. It's also really stupid, because it's not even one of those fighty questions you get in interviews where they're supposed to be...I don't know, finding out if you get annoyed by fighty questions. But if this person is not supervising you or will not have any contact with you, the job might still be worth taking. I took a job where a portion of the interview process really, really pissed me off. I commented at the time and then spent some energy after I was hired ensuring that portion was not repeated for other candidates because it made my department, quite frankly, look like morons.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:26 AM on May 8, 2012

"That is a very personal question, could you please explain its relevance to your consideration of myself for this position?"

Meet awkward with more awkward, but honestly and professionally.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:57 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

A strategy for the future: Think up a better narrative for the period of unemployment (certainly it will always be asked about) and the interviewer won't wonder whether you were being supported by your parents while slacking. PS, the narrative doesn't need to be true. You could say, for example, that your parents had asked you to devote some time to volunteer work after graduation in exchange for helping to finance your education as a way to pay it pack to society.
posted by slkinsey at 5:21 AM on May 8, 2012

From the OP:
The interviewer is a male, late 60s, who would eventually become my direct superior.. And I just remembered, I didn't actually say yes, I just shrugged in a joking way, and he then said, "I suppose you were out finding yourself." Now I am used to dealing with offensive people, but .... honestly, it was a period of struggling to find work, crashing at friends' houses, and moving for spare cash. For that to be judged like by somebody, like it's some liability, was very infantilizing... especially as the interviewer told me I was the most qualified of 15 candidates! Yes, I think it was a "test question," to see how I deal with being pressed into conflict.
posted by jessamyn at 6:54 AM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

You know, you probably shouldn't expect the work environment to be less hostile than the interview.
posted by endless_forms at 7:01 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Run. This infantilizing and belittling behavior will persist and get worse throughout your employment. You are basically being told, "FYI, I and everyone here will have a chip on our shoulders, so get ready to deal with that."
posted by moammargaret at 7:34 AM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Well, I see you seem to have a job. What assumptions can I make about your parents?
posted by emelenjr at 7:51 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

My response to that question, "Oh yeah, we're the fucking Rockefellers."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:02 AM on May 8, 2012

Illegal questions get asked all the time, usually by people who don't know better. There isn't much you can do. If you point out that the question isn't legal, you're not getting the job (though they'll never admit that's the reason why you didn't). If you evade the question, you're not getting the job (though they'll never admit that's the reason why you didn't).

The best thing you can do is answer the question in a way that you feel comfortable with that also won't scare off the potential employer. Then, you at least leave yourself in a position where you can turn the job down if you don't want it rather than have them instantly decide they don't want you.

"The interview question (after I explained the volunteering and odd jobs that I did during this period): "I supposed your parents must be wealthy?" "

The trick is to take a question and answer it as a positive thing. Like it or not, you're at a job interview, right? Even a question that shouldn't be asked can be spun into a positive about yourself.

I'd have said something like: "Actually, no. I went through a period where I was very very poor, but I put a lot of work into a really good cause, and I learned quite a bit in the process. If you're interested, I'd love to tell you about it." And if he takes the bait, you're on your way to being chosen for the job. If you still want it, of course.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:12 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

It is always a good idea to enter an interview situation with a few go-to phrases. When you feel you need time to consider a question, and you don't want to stare blankly at the other person, you say "I'm sorry, could you please repeat your question?"

Some questions will be repeated verbatim; some will be rephrased; some will be dropped altogether. The important thing is that you have a few moments to think "should I answer this question, and if so, how should I answer it?"

In your case, it was an inappropriate question, and you could have said "I don't feel comfortable answering that question", or "I don't think that is a relevant question." The response would likely have been somewhat cool, and you might not have gotten the job. A better answer in these circumstances is to move the interview forward, by giving the person a chance to reconsider their question.

In your case, you weren't even asked an explicit question, and even if asked to repeat the "question", they'd likely not dare to explicitly ask "are your parents wealthy", so:

"I suppose your parents are wealthy."

"I'm sorry, can you repeat the question?"

"Well, considering you were able to live without full-time employment for that period of time, I assume you were supported by your parents."

"Are you asking me how I supported myself without a full-time job?"

-- or --

"I suppose your parents are wealthy."

"I'm sorry, can you repeat the question?"

"Oh, it isn't a question, I just assumed your parents were wealthy, since you didn't have full-time employment during that time period."

"I see. Do you often have candidates who are used to being supported by their wealthy parents?" (with a smile, of course.)

-- or --

"I suppose your parents are wealthy."

"I'm sorry, can you repeat the question?"

"I suppose your parents are wealthy."

"Can you clarify, are you asking me if my parents are wealthy, or are you asking me how I supported myself without full-time employment during that period of time?"

(if at this point he or she asks point-blank "are your parents wealthy?" you can always derail it with a joke -- "why, are you hoping to add a [your name] wing onto this building?" -- or with a deflection -- "I suppose I should ask them one of these days, how about yours?" -- but at that point it would be clear they're too dense to realize how inappropriate they've been, and I would write off the job as a good fit at that point.)
posted by davejay at 3:01 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

"In your case, it was an inappropriate question, and you could have said "I don't feel comfortable answering that question", or "I don't think that is a relevant question." "

I wouldn't recommend that unless you are absolutely certain that you are the only candidate being interviewed and you're equally certain they really want you - specifically YOU - for the job, in which case, the interview is a formality.

If you're at a job interview, you're basically in a competition with people you don't get to meet. You need your interview to be better than their interviews. If you say "I don't feel comfortable answering that question", or "I don't think that is a relevant question," the person interviewing you is going to wonder why... and that's going to call even more attention to the issue that wasn't legal for them to bring up in the first place.
posted by 2oh1 at 4:54 PM on May 8, 2012

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