What Interviewers Want to Know but Can’t Ask

Posted on Posted in Millennial Employment Guide

Let’s play the You’re a Hiring Manager game! You manage a sales team of five people. In the past 3 years, you’ve had 18 people in total hold those five positions. Most have left because they have found better sales opportunities, but there have been other reasons. You’ve lost four great employees who left to start families. You’ve had faulty phone wiring cost you millions in workman’s compensation. You’re certain you lost a handful of great leads because your best seller had religious obligations twice a week.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could find out if any of this was going to happen before you hired these people? For an employer, maybe. If you are an employee, then this is the definition of discrimination. Understand that many employers feel they are entitled to this information as they believe it is relevant to your success in their company. They may also still be butt-hurt about someone who worked there three years ago.

There are a number of questions that employers are not allowed to ask candidates. This doesn’t mean they aren’t asked, but it does mean that you do not have to answer. In general, employers aren’t allowed to get information that proves you are or are not a protected class of citizen. This means your employer cannot ask questions with the intent on learning your age, sex, race, ethnicity, color, religious affiliation, national origin, disability, or marital/family status. This also varies state to state. First, let’s get this out of the way: you are allowed to talk about any of these things. If you voluntarily share any information about your race or religion, that’s fine. Legally, the employer cannot use this information as a deciding factor in employment. “Why would they even ask if they can’t use this information?” you might be asking. It’s because they want to know and because they want to use this information in their hiring decisions. It’s like being on a first date. You are trying to find out if the person across from you is crazy, but you really can’t just ask them “Are you crazy?” Instead, you ask a load of other questions that allow you to grind on the issue until you have a good idea. Today we are going to look at how to identify a question you do not have to answer in an interview and what to do if you are certain you do not have to answer an interviewer’s question.

Which Questions Shouldn’t I Answer?

If you have an interview coming up, you should be aware of which questions you don’t have to answer. Let’s first talk about what should be asked. Employers should be asking about your experiences and qualifications to see if it matches their needs. This usually looks like being asked about where you worked or trained, what you did in a few interesting situations, and what you would do in a few others. Questions where you are asked to talk about what you have done or would do in a certain work scenario are known as behavioral questions.  Notice how all these things relate to what you did at work and what you might do at work—there’s nothing about what takes place before or after.

Things get dicey when you feel like people are asking questions that have nothing to do with work experience or your ability to do the job today. You can’t be asked about your age because that doesn’t affect how much you can sell, but you can be asked if you are over 18 because you might need to be of a certain age to sell certain products—you couldn’t do the job today if you were less than 18. You can’t be asked if you go to church or how often, but you can be asked if you are comfortable contacting and visiting religious sites in order to install marble—you can’t do the job today if you are not ok with that. See the differences here? You can talk about church and age or sex and race, but if it seems as if your particular age, sex, race or any other protected characteristics are coming into play in a way that is not an important part the duties and responsibilities of the position, that’s a question you don’t have to answer.

There are some things outside of this that you do not have to answer as well. While you may have to disclose being convicted of a crime, you don’t have to disclose anything else about your legal or criminal background. You don’t have to disclose arrests, citations, parking tickets, or anything that was sealed or expunged. If you have been sued or sued anyone, especially a former employer, you are not required to disclose this information either. Family planning is also none of your employers business (even if they are in the family planning business). You do not have to tell them if you are married, pregnant, planning on becoming pregnant, already a parent, adopted, divorced or any of that.

How Do I Respond When Asked?

If you feel an employer is asking you a question you don’t have to answer, you have a few options when it comes to responding. Let’s get you back into the hiring manager seat first. Ultimately, you want to learn if the person across from you is going to be an asset to your team for a long time. When an employer asks you a question that you don’t have to answer, that employer may feel like you are not providing the information they need to make an informed decision as to why you should or should not be hired. If you outright refuse to answer the question, it is not going to reflect well on you (but neither should the answer since they legally cannot use it in their hiring decision). Let’s talk about some ways you can answer the question that could reflect well.

One thing you can do is kindly remind them how their question is not relevant to your performance in the position. Reference the job posting or the responsibilities and duties mentioned. You can say something like “When I was looking over the job description, I didn’t remember church attendance being mentioned under requirements.”  Alternatively, you can ask how what they are asking ties into the role you are interviewing for. “I can see what you’re getting at, but how important is my personal marriage in this role?” It shouldn’t be, and there really is no good way to answer this question, so you can expect a redirect to the next question or a statement that is going to be the reason you quit after a few weeks.

Alternatively, you can attempt to address the root cause of their concern. For example, if an employer asks if you have any children, they may be attempting to learn if child care or school events are going to conflict with your work schedule. Instead of answering the question directly, you can answer the concern. You can say something like “I have never been late or missed work due to a child care conflict without first notifying my supervisor.” This way, you are not giving away any information that you do not have to, but also addressing the concern. Faith based questions can be side-stepped similarly. If you are asked if you are a member of any church, a question you do not have to answer, the employer may be trying to learn if you have a source for making moral decisions. Instead of saying yes or no to the church question, you can address the concern by treating the question as a behavioral question and explain what you have done at work when there was a moral dilemma.

Judgment is a Two-way Street

One last note on interview questions: the interview process says a lot about any company you may want to work for. Think of it as a microcosm of the average day to day proceedings of the organization. If the interview process was slow, long-winded, and boring, you shouldn’t expect your time at that company to be dramatically different. If the interviewer kept pressing you with questions about your physical appearance that might be because that is important to them. You shouldn’t expect your time at the company to be dramatically different.  Always remember that you are learning just as much about the organization as the organization is learning about you. You are also there to make a decision to continue with the organization or not. If any of the questions left a bad taste in your mouth, you want to consider that if you get a call back. Perhaps before the interview this was your dream job. It’s okay if the interview process changes that. You learned a lot of things that you could not really find out before attending the interview.

You are the only person that knows if that particular career step at that time is worth showing up to a workplace where you don’t feel comfortable 100% of the time. You are the only person that knows if the most comfortable option you have only makes you feel comfortable 10% of the time. In the end the decision is yours alone.

Next week we are going to begin looking at (hopefully) your next step in the job search process: salary negotiation. Entire books have been written on the topic, but I will just be talking about general strategies that anyone can use to have an effective discussion about how much you should be compensated for your time and effort.

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