How to prepare for the unexpected in an interview (for women)
April 27, 2018 12:45 AM   Subscribe

I've recently started interviewing for positions, and I've been caught off guard twice with personal questions that have nothing to do with my ability to perform the job. Both times, I'm sure they were questions that would never be asked of a male interviewing for the position. How do I politely steer the conversation away from this line of questioning without breaking the flow of the interview? Or should this be a solid red flag?

I have a friend that's offered to practice throwing me curveballs (she works in the same industry and has 8 years more experience than me), but I'm still trying to figure out what the "right" way to respond is that doesn't completely sink the interview. Are there general phrases/things I can do to prepare myself? I tend to blush profusely and stutter when caught off guard, and when my brain catches up, I end up being blunt and no longer congenial. I need a way of reinforcing in interviews that this is about my career and my goals, not about my relationship and personal life, without coming off as a bitch.

For example, in the most recent interview, the interviewer went to the same university/same department as me and my fiancé (but barely overlapping, we weren't even dating at the time, and it was 10 years ago) and is not in the same social/professional circle as either of us. During the interview he sussed out through my mailing address that I was both in a relationship and recently engaged (neither of us are friends with him on any social media platforms, and we rarely use them, it's possible he heard from an acquaintance). He even said, "I don't know if I'm allowed to ask this, but is ____ your fiancé?" I couldn't do much except confirm it (at which point he offered his congratulations and told me what a great guy he is).

I'm in a fairly narrow field, so while it's likely that I will run into people during interviewing that vaguely know me through someone or of me. However, I try to keep my personal/professional life separate, and I'd like for it to stay that way.
posted by pianohands to Work & Money (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe try feigning ignorance, and saying something like "Oh, Sorry but I'm not sure how to answer that question. Would you mind explaining how that relates to this position?" with a slightly puzzled look on your face.
(though to be honest, I don't see the question you gave as an example as being anything inappropriate. Finding ways of relating personally to the candidates seems like a great way to show they're not just looking for a drone)
posted by hasna at 2:19 AM on April 27, 2018 [32 favorites]

People want to know if they're connected to you. I don't think this is gender related. I've been asked if I'm related to so and so based on my not super common last name lots and lots of times. I think it's a bonus for you if the interviewer feels like you run in the same circles. Asking about your personal life is a positive sign for the interview. Asking about kids gets dicey for women, because it can make you seem connected but also people unfairly penalize women for it, but that doesn't seem to be what this is about. I'd just happily answer questions about my ex roomate/uncle/old advisor with a smile.
posted by Kalmya at 2:34 AM on April 27, 2018 [14 favorites]

In regards to your fiancé he either did some facebooking or googling and brought it up that way, or he knows your fiancé way better than you thought.

Either way, it's not terrible to create a human connection though understandably disconcerning if your worried about how being female and in a relationship sometimes gives the impression of family planning which is a huge nono question.

When it's worded with names like that, it's kind of hard to avoid because he already knows.

In most interview situations, that question would be highly generalized and just answer with a generic professional answer followed by a opened ended question about the job.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:50 AM on April 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

The big no no for interviews here in Australian government places of employment following the Merit&Equity rules is trying to suss out if a person is planning on becoming pregnant (for the purpose of hiring someone else.) This is, in fact, illegal, and as an interviewer you need to avoid this.

The personal seeming questions can be a way of guessing at this, which I agree is gross.

"I'm not sure how this question is relevant to this role" is a perfectly good response.
posted by freethefeet at 3:41 AM on April 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

If I asked someone who went to the same university/department as me if so-and-so was their fiance and they said "I'm not sure how this is relevant", I would 100% not want to hire or work with that person and I'd wonder what they were hiding about this innocuous topic. And I wouldn't hire them if I had any other viable candidates who were willing to chat a bit about our shared history.

Maybe consider reframing the interview as not only to see if the candidate is technically skilled to do the job (that can likely be seen from cv/resume) but also to see if the candidate fits into the work environment/culture. There are questions that cross the line for sure, but a whole middle area of questions that are not 100% relevant to the technical skills of the job but not crossing any line to unprofessional. If those questions result in feeling uncomfortable, then maybe this is an environment/culture mismatch.

The interview is on your side! They want to know if this is a good match! If you don't feel this way, then don't work for that organization!
posted by RoadScholar at 5:46 AM on April 27, 2018 [38 favorites]

I'm concerned sometimes about the whole world when I see disdain for culturally normal (as in fitting in with norms) and even healthy social behavior (asking a friendly question). Of course it is perfectly okay to say anything in response, for example "I don't answer personal questions" and even eyeroll, but don't expect to get the job because it is also perfectly okay for the interviewer to not hire you simply because they do not like you even if you are technically proficient. There are very few people/industries that can get away with being unlikable yet professionally successful and often not until one already has the job and is already successful (Steve Jobs level for example based on the movie/folklore).

I looked at your history and see you are on the west coast and perhaps in academia or similar circles, I am midwest-ish and mostly have worked for big corporations (but do work for a progressive university right now) as a reality check that maybe I am too old, too corporate, and too midwestern to understand this attitude. It isn't as if the interviewer asked about your fiance/ee and winked insinuatingly with a shoulder shimmy I hope? And even in that case, this is more about whether you want to work for them and in that case, no.

To answer your question, politely steer the questioner away by saying, yes, he is my fiance, thanks for asking, smile/nod, then ask a question about the questioner's experience in university/department, "did you work in department during that timeframe too?" to actually make a personal connection and get the job. Practicing answering such questions with a friend sounds great.
posted by RoadScholar at 6:00 AM on April 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

So, I definitely think there are some personal questions you should push back on and it's totally reasonable to want to keep your personal and professional lives separate.

But if you're in a narrow field (and it sounds like your fiancé has at least some ties to that same narrow field), there's going to be a limit to how separate you can keep these sides of your life without holding back your career (just where the limiting line is varies a lot by field/department/institution). The fiancé question doesn't seem out of line to me - more like the interviewer trying to find a connection between himself and you - this is almost certainly a good sign in terms of your candidacy, though it might be a sign that the department would be more familiar than you would like (but again: commenting on your being engaged to an acquaintance registers pretty low on the intrusiveness scale for me and, I think, for a lot of people and workplaces).

In general, I think your best bet is probably to acknowledge the comment or briefly answer the question and move on. There was a good question similar to this on the Ask A Manager blog a few months ago - can I refuse to answer questions about my personal background? Basically her answer was "Refusing to answer is generally much more distracting and weird-sounding to the interviewer than answering briefly and redirecting."
posted by mskyle at 6:20 AM on April 27, 2018 [8 favorites]

Based on the first part of your post, I was expecting examples of genuinely gross questions. I'm a little puzzled that you're put off by the one you give as an example. I think Kalmya nails it above; the interviewer has a (small) personal connection to you.

Maybe this example isn't a good one; were there other questions you've encountered that you felt were inappropriate?
posted by uberchet at 6:20 AM on April 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

In this case, the interviewer gave you an easy out. You just say "no, actually, I don't think you're allowed to ask it", and change the subject. For other situations, try something like "I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I see how that's relevant." The "I'm sorry" should defuse awkwardness so that you don't sound defensive or angry.

"I would 100% not want to hire or work with that person and I'd wonder what they were hiding about this innocuous topic. And I wouldn't hire them..."

Hopefully, both for your potential interviewers' and your company's sake, you never actually have to interview anyone. What might they be hiding? Their sexual orientation, for one thing, which is protected by law. Intent to become pregnant, for another, as someone else pointed out. General creepiness, which isn't illegal but should probably be discouraged.

"I'm concerned sometimes about the whole world when I see disdain for culturally normal ... and even healthy social behavior"

Personally, I'm more concerned when society reframes prying into others' personal lives as "culturally normal" and "healthy".
posted by kevinbelt at 7:06 AM on April 27, 2018 [17 favorites]

I'm in a similar situation as you (younger, female, recently went through an academic job search in a smaller, traditionally-male dominated field.) Like others, I read your example as the interviewer trying to make small talk with someone he doesn't really know, may be spending most of his waking hours with, and might have a personal connection to. Is your fiancé also applying to jobs in this field? I'm having trouble understanding how the interviewer detemined your relationship status from your mailing address.
posted by basalganglia at 7:09 AM on April 27, 2018

@basalganglia My fiancé is in the same field but in academia, while I'm in industry. He's been at the same job for a number of years, and the address is linked to that institution. I believe the interviewer might have gone out for an academic position there as well, so he would associate the town with the university (there's literally nothing else there).

The question started innocuously enough; he asked why I wanted to move to the city where the job is. I gave the standard, oh I enjoyed living/working there before and want to be closer to family (parents). He then asked if my parents lived at the address on my resume (I've been using my fiancé's address for mailing address while I've been abroad). When I said no, he then guessed my fiancé (I did just check that they are connected on Linkedin, but the interviewer has over 500 connections). He also wasn't the only person interviewing me, the head of the office, who I have never met, was present.

Personally, I'm extremely leery of disclosing my relationship status because from what I've seen in this industry, it's a pretty common but faulty assumption from engaged -> pregnant for women in their late 20s.
posted by pianohands at 7:40 AM on April 27, 2018

I’m in academia, and when I hear this sort of question I imagine the interviewer wants to understand if spousal employment is likely to be a barrier to the interviewee accepting an offer. This is probably somewhat gendered behavior (do they worry that men will need to persuade their wives to follow, or do they just assume it will happen?), but I’m not certain it’s quite so toxic as “will she just get pregnant and quit” (which I’m sure some employers still think too, sadly).

Nevertheless, in your shoes I might be thrown off as you were, not by the context shift, exactly, but by the fact that it seems like it took some work on his part to infer that you are a couple. I once had an interviewer intimate that he knew all sorts of stuff about me that I had not disclosed, and I took that as a power move (and declined the job as a result). So while I’m not certain the question is super unusual, I do think the circumstances are a little surprising. I feel like his tone matters a lot here.
posted by eirias at 8:10 AM on April 27, 2018

I feel for you so hard in this. The most egregious flub I ever had in an interview is when this guy (I was interviewing with three men at once all with different demeanors and it was a bit stressful as a junior person who really wanted the job!), he asked pretty innocuously, “So, what kind of other things are you interested in besides [job topic] in your free time?” I just froze and stammered and searched around, my mind racing. Because the truth was, I had my first baby at home, in the throes of potty training and still not sleeping through the night. I did not want to talk about being a mom or any of those things that penalize you as a woman. I was afraid and what the truth was is, all my hobbies have kind of been set aside as I scramble for work and raise my baby and be exhausted all the time because the first two years of parenthood are a marathon.

I finally blurted something out about past hobbies that I used to indulge in. The fear, though, is real. Maybe the commiserations about new parenting would have endeared me to those men, but statistics say it wouldn’t. At least two of those men were newish fathers but the baby bonus for men is real. Hey, they had jobs in a down economy and I was scrambling so anecdote of 1.

I think, if I had it to do over again, I’d be open and friendly about my life in a conversational way while always steering back to the job topic at hand (“Oh gosh, I used to do so many things but I have a 2-year-old and don’t really think I have downtime! Ha-ha! Does this office do any kind of team-building projects outside of the regular workflow?”).

You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I think being cold and assertive is just as penalized for a woman as being anything else as a woman.
posted by amanda at 8:30 AM on April 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

How do I politely steer the conversation away from this line of questioning without breaking the flow of the interview?

Short answer, as non-committal as is polite and then jump back to the most recent relevant topic.

- I don't know if I'm allowed to ask this, but is ____ your fiancé?
- Haha, I don't know if you're allowed to ask it either! or Haha, maybe. or Errr.. yes?
[then without pausing for breath]
I'd just like to add to my previous answer that I also put systems in place to ensure high quality outputs were maintained...

Or should this be a solid red flag?

I can't speak for your field, but I have interviewed for a reasonably large organisation and would not consider asking a question like that.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 8:35 AM on April 27, 2018

After reading your follow-up, I can understand your hesitancy. It was a bit forward of him to ask first about your parents, then your fiance. And just awkward.

For the future, you don't need to put your address on your resume. Can you perhaps remove it for future job submissions, and hopefully avoid this type of situation?
posted by hydra77 at 10:09 AM on April 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Don't be afraid of silence. While the inappropriate question dangles in the air, you can:

Raise your eyebrows
Sit back slightly in your chair
Tilt your head slightly in disbelief

The main thing is the pause. If they don't shuffle papers and move on themselves, you can use hasna's excellent phrasing, or try I don't see how that's pertinent, I prefer not to answer personal questions while interviewing, I'm not sure how that's relevant, and re-direct. Or, Why are you asking, Can I ask why you're asking, Can you explain how that's relevant to this position, etc.

This awkwardness is on your interviewer; Do your parents live at that address is not a genuine interview question. That the follow-up was that he knows your fiancé and offered congratulations cuts the initial creepiness of it by only like 20%, because he still poked around in your personal life too much.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:42 AM on April 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

> The question started innocuously enough; he asked why I wanted to move to the city where the job is. I gave the standard, oh I enjoyed living/working there before and want to be closer to family (parents). He then asked if my parents lived at the address on my resume (I've been using my fiancé's address for mailing address while I've been abroad). When I said no, he then guessed my fiancé (I did just check that they are connected on Linkedin, but the interviewer has over 500 connections). He also wasn't the only person interviewing me, the head of the office, who I have never met, was present.

I also think it is generally totally okay to ask about your mutual personal connections to others in the field, it's good interview small talk. But not in the awkward and boundary-pushing way that he did it.

I agree that asking about you moving to the area is fine and innocuous. But continuing to press on regarding the specific street address on your resume...and your parents' residence...and then he KEPT GOING to guess who else's address it could be and is it your fiancé? Good grief, interviewer, stop talking, this is a job interview, not a security investigation.
posted by desuetude at 11:05 AM on April 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Also, you can just ignore questions.

Interviewer: is so and so in Boston your partner?
You: yeah, I love the spring in Boston, especially the wild flowers, but the weather is just so consistently good here in LA, I don't miss spring, don't you think?
posted by Kalmya at 1:59 PM on April 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’m a Sr. Manager and I never would even consider asking a question about anything that’s not already on the resume or brought up in the interview by the candidate. Even if I figured something out due to the mailing address I would bite my tongue because the only thing a mailing address tells me is “have a talk about relocation expectations” if they live far away.

That question (is x your fiancé?) would likely get me written up, sent to remedial interviewing counseling or depending on how the candidate reacted, in even deeper shit.
posted by Annika Cicada at 2:44 PM on April 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is the interviewer guessing who your fiancee is the only example? Because I, too, as a woman do not think this is about your gender. I think it's normal an interviewer would be curious about any mutual connections. People always prefer to hire people they have a sense of and character references for. Any sort of connection is better than hiring someone who will be a complete surprise in every way.

That said, the interviewer sounded awkward, but what can you do? Awkward interviewers are a hazard of interviewing for jobs, and if he isn't awkward about figuring out where you live, then it's going to be about something else. I just think you're reading into this instance a little bit.
posted by AppleTurnover at 3:01 PM on April 27, 2018

I’ve been on hiring committees, and I would not hire someone who ignored the question and started an unrelated tangent as Kalmya suggested.

I think in the moment, this is just a tough situation unless you’re willing to risk just blowing the interview. Though one of my great regrets is that I didn’t confront one interviewer who was deliberately confrontational, but he wasn’t the only one interviewing me and I really wanted the job. I didn’t get it and I ended up wishing I had just walked out.

I once filled out a job application that included the question, “What church do you go to?” That was illegal even then, but I was desperate, so I just answered the question. I didn’t get that one either.
posted by FencingGal at 3:24 PM on April 27, 2018

I think in this case the question you wanted to redirect was "do your parents live at this address" - and for that one, it's so clearly irrelevant that all of the variations on "I don't see why my parents address is relevant here" would be good.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 4:18 PM on April 27, 2018

It is not OK for interviewer to ask those things, as because stated above, they could be used to determine age, sexual orientation, or motherhood/ pregnancy status. Sadly, the vast majority of interviewers I have worked with are woefully ignorant about such things, or just can’t remember to follow the rules. You shouldn’t have to answer those things, but you will likely have to at some point, depending on how badly you need the job. The “answer vaguely and move on” tactic is probably the best.
posted by greermahoney at 12:17 AM on April 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

A recruiter asked me an inappropriate question once and I replied, "legally you can't ask me that," and then shuddered as I watched that job opportunity fly out the window.

But he laughed it off and I got the job.

Be prepared to call them on illegal shit but employ one of the diversionary tactics in this thread for issues that aren't strictly illegal.

Best of luck.
posted by bendy at 12:14 AM on May 1, 2018

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