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Why do you ask? How to interpret and respond to inappropriate interview questions

Jul. 2, 2012 - 12:07PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 2, 2012 - 12:07PM  |  
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Most job interviews — not unlike presidential debates — come with their fair share of squirm-provoking questions. Some creep into that what-does-this-have-to-with-anything zone. So is it better to artfully dodge a question you don't like or deem inappropriate, respond with indignant wrath, or bite the bullet and squirm your way through it? To illustrate how sticky things can get, consider the Republican presidential debate in which Newt Gingrich berated the moderator for even asking about what Gingrich deemed inappropriate. You might have thought, "Good for him!" or seen Gingrich's response as a way to confuse the issue by stopping someone from asking questions he didn't want to deal with. Or, did it reinforce a negative impression? "Politicians are better off answering the wrong question well than the right question poorly," Harvard professors Todd Rogers and Michael Norton say in a New York Times article. In other words, it's better to artfully dodge a question.

Let's extend that logic to the job interview.

Let's say an interviewer asks this totally inappropriate question (and one that could point to discrimination later): "Do you have children?" Does whether you have children have anything to do with whether you have the right skills and background necessary for the job — the things he should be asking you about? No. So why is he asking? He may think children could affect your ability to do this job — that you might be distracted or not as committed, call in sick a lot or spend too much time on personal calls. And if the job calls for travel, he wants to make sure that's not an issue.

You could inelegantly answer the question by saying, "You can't ask that!" or go off on a Gingrich-like tirade with something like, "I resent that question! How dare you ask about my personal life! That's none of your damn business."

You may be justified in your reaction, but you can say farewell to any interest the interviewer had in you.

By responding firmly and artfully dodging the question, your chances of keeping the conversation going improve dramatically.

You might say:

* "If you're wondering how committed I'll be to this job, let me assure you that I take my work very seriously and you can be certain that my personal life will not disrupt my work at the company."

* "Why do you ask?" or "I'm not sure what that would have to do with my qualifications for this position. Can you explain?" When you handle these delicate situations more artfully, you will get an "A" for diplomacy, tact and professionalism. People will like you for that.

The Harvard researchers point out in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that when speakers artfully dodge, listeners may fail to detect such dodges. They propose that's because the listeners' attention "is directed toward a goal of social evaluation (i.e., Do I like this person?)" As Dale Carnegie put it in Rule 6 of "How to Make Our Listeners Like Us": "We can't win friends with a scowling face and an upbraiding voice." He adds: "Quintilian taught 19 centuries ago that ‘that which offends the ear will not easily gain admission to the mind.'" That's good advice to keep in the back of your mind, no matter what job you're seeking.

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