How to handle inappropriate interview questions

How to handle inappropriate interview questions

The excitement of being called for an interview can fizzle away in an instant if it doesn’t go well. No one expects all the questions they are asked to be easy to answer, but they don’t expect them to be inappropriate either. This is, however, not an unusual situation to find yourself in: one in four UK professionals say they have been discriminated against in an interview. So how should you handle questions that leave you squirming in your seat?


A little research can help you to recognise which questions are off-limits, but how you respond is up to you. Your heart may say, “I don’t have to listen to this”, even if your head is saying, “But I really want this job.” So what do you do? Well, remember that the interviewer won’t necessarily be your direct boss, so you will want to keep your cool while you assess the situation.

It’s important to make sure that any boorishness doesn’t throw you, according to Rachel Redshaw, founder and director of Future Potential in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. “I recommend remaining professional and polite,” she said. “Even in such circumstances, you can showcase your talents and fit for the role without feeling compelled to answer irrelevant questions.”

Here are her top tips for handling inappropriate questions at an interview:

1. Be aware that this is nothing new

Redshaw, whose company focuses on leadership development, has been involved in interviews, both as an interviewer and as a candidate, for more than 20 years. “While I have seen bad practice during that time, thankfully I’ve only been witness to intentional discrimination once and that was towards me as a candidate,” she said. Oftentimes, it is a lack of experience, training or preparation that leads to an inappropriate line of questioning. “Sometimes it’s down to a lack of self-awareness or treating the interview too informally and engaging in chit-chat that steps across the boundaries of what is appropriate [legal or otherwise] in an interview,” she said. “Even if the intentions are not malicious, those interviewing have to be both responsible and accountable for running a fair, unbiased process.”

Sometimes it is obvious when a line has been crossed. “I have heard of an interview where a female in the early stages of her career was asked how she would manage the older men in the team, ‘You know, those old enough to be your dad?’ They then went on to check ‘you aren’t one of those women who cry at work are you, as you wouldn’t get any respect from the team if you are’,” said Redshaw. There is so much wrong with those questions.”

2. Take a look at the law around this area

While some questions are simply inappropriate, others are illegal. You are legally protected under the Equality Act 2010 against being asked questions that are discriminatory and could lead to less favourable treatment. Interviewers are obliged to comply with the act and to ensure they do not discriminate against any candidate, either directly or indirectly. It covers what are termed “protected characteristics” that include age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion, belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity.

“Equal Opportunities law and guidance are continually updated,” said Redshaw, “but the main elements have been in place for many years.”

Many interviewers have had training about conscious bias, such as prejudice against someone because of their gender, beliefs or race. Interview training and company policies are commonly structured to stay away from such questions as, “Do you have children?” or “When do you plan to retire?”, which are known to be unacceptable.

There is also the question of unconscious or indirect bias or discrimination. “Education has increased around unconscious bias—where we can be influenced by something without realising, such as stereotyping certain groups or behaving more favourably towards those who are most like ourselves. This is a positive move forward. It challenges those underlying beliefs we may unconsciously hold and which could make a recruitment decision unfair,” said Redshaw.

3. Learn to recognise inappropriate questions

As a general rule of thumb, if the question is about your personal life, unconnected with the role or is something you feel uncomfortable about answering, then it may well be inappropriate, according to Redshaw. “Ask yourself: ‘Is this information needed to assess my ability to do the job?” she said.

All of these questions, for example, would be classed as inappropriate and potentially discriminatory:

  • Where do you really come from?
  • When did you graduate?
  • How much do you weigh?
  • Can you be available to travel at short notice?
  • Do you need flexibility to take care of a young family?
  • Do you have full-time childcare?
  • Do you take recreational drugs?
  • How many days sick did you have off in your last job?
  • How do you feel about managing people older than you?
  • When do you plan to retire?
  • Will the hours/shifts clash with your family commitments?
  • Will overtime be a problem with childcare?

4. How should you respond to unpalatable questions?

The key here is to remain absolutely professional. You can show how you are perfect for the role without getting drawn into answering irrelevant questions. Here’s how to approach such questions:

1. Generically—give a general response that works for many questions

“There is nothing in that respect that would affect my ability to perform in this role.”“There isn’t anything within the job description or advert that poses an issue for me.”“I understand the expectations of the role and I believe I can meet them.”

2. Reframe—answer around the topic but steer it back to what is relevant

If you are asked, “How would you manage a team with members who are older than you?”, ignore the “older” and simply talk about how you lead teams.
“I consider myself an inclusive leader and provide clarity around goals as well as the support to achieve them. I see everyone as an individual and personalise my approach to suit the person and situation.”

3. Connect—answer the essence of the question without the specifics

If you are asked, “When did you graduate?”, for example, which may be an attempt to find out your age, you do not have to provide a date. Instead reply, “I attended university straight after school” or “I studied while working at Company X , which sponsored me.”

4. Ask for context—where the relevance of the question is unclear

Try using one of these questions to bring the interviewer back to a relevant topic.
Could you please provide some context around that question, so I can address any concerns specific to the role itself?”
“What do you see as the core requirements of the role?” You can then explain how you would meet those.
“I’m sensing you may have a concern—is there something specific about the job or business driving that?”

5. Ask a direct question—where either the interviewer is persistently asking inappropriate questions or the other approaches haven’t worked

“Can you please help me to understand how that question [or those questions] relates to my ability to do the job?”
“Can you please explain how that question(s) is relevant to that role?”

5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

“If something is unclear, or the intention is unclear, don’t become defensive or make assumptions,” said Redshaw. Simply ask for clarification there and then, and steer the conversation towards what’s relevant. “Remember, as a candidate, you don’t have to directly answer questions that are irrelevant, inappropriate or potentially biased,” she said.

6. What should you do in the days following the interview?

Depending on how serious the situation is, you may want to take action if you think a line has been crossed. If the company has a human resource department, Redshaw recommends that you approach it in a positive manner to share your experience, with examples of what you were asked. “This gives them the insights to both check in on that interview and decision-making process, as well as make any necessary improvements for the future,” she said.

If you find yourself facing an awkward question, you can use one of the techniques here to steer the conversation in the right direction. Don’t be afraid to ask questions before, during or after the interview. Job interviews are a two-way process. The company is assessing you, but you are there to find out whether the job and the business is right for you too.

Photo: WTTJ

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Rose Costello

Editor and writer

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