Did she really just ask that question?
That's a thought that may go through your mind as you sit in the interview chair, hoping to get the job. Maybe the query was too personal, controversial, or just downright weird or offensive. Whatever the reason, you really don't want to answer.
Do you have to?
Experts say no.
"Never answer questions you feel are too personal, put you potentially in a bad light, or aren't relevant to the job at hand, or your ability to perform the duties in the job description," says Lynn Taylor a workplace expert and author of the book Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job.
Out of bounds questions
Many companies have rules that govern what questions interviewers can and can't ask to avoid running afoul of federal discrimination laws. Risky questions might include your marital status, sexual orientation, age, race, or national origin. Interviewers who ask them can put the organization at risk of being accused of unfair hiring practices or open it up to lawsuits, says the Society for Human Resource Management.
But not every company spells out clear interviewing rules and not every interviewer is a seasoned pro. Sometimes an interviewer is just trying to make conversation and wanders into a gray area. But it can put you in a tough spot nonetheless. "What church you go to, or your plans for having kids shouldn't have any bearing on your qualifications for the job," says Alison Green, author of the Ask a Manager advice blog and the upcoming Ask a Manager book (Ballantine, May 2018). But while you don't have to answer-a refusal can make the interview get awkward quickly—and won't help you land the job.
Skip the answer, get the job
So, what can you do to field an uncomfortable question without alienating the interviewer?
Follow some simple strategies that allow you to avoid answering, yet still keep the interview on track.
Answer the real question
"Figure out what the question is getting at, and answer that instead," says Green. The interviewer asks about your kids, but really wants to know if family obligations will pull you away from your job. Focus on the underlying concern. For example: "There's nothing that would interfere with my ability to work the hours you expect and make the job a top priority," says Green.
Sometimes a question may reveal an unconscious bias against you, says Taylor. "Age discrimination is one of the biggest issues I see." An employer might ask about your "energy level," tipping you off that your age is an issue. Use the opportunity to counter the bias by speaking to the concern, outlining your accomplishments and your positive traits.
Admit you don't know
Some questions aren't inappropriate, but you just don't know the answer. Sometimes it's okay not to answer these questions either. "It's actually better to be up-front about that than to try to bluff your way through," says Green. "If the question is an important one, the interviewer is going to be able to tell you're bluffing, and that can be a deal-breaker." Explain you're not sure of the answer, but follow up by talking about how you'd find the answer.
Prepare and practice
Anticipate inappropriate questions before an interview and prepare a response so you're ready if it should happen, says Taylor. Writing notes and preparing your response can help you avoid feeling tongue-tied and panicked if an awkward subject comes up.
Don't jump to respond to every question
"Take your time in responding, or you might find yourself saying something you regret, or divulging too much," says Taylor. And remember, when it comes to interviews, you're in control of what you say, regardless of what the interviewer asks.
Remember, not all questions are fair game when you’re interviewing, so don’t be afraid to take a stand when it comes to over-the-line questions. You're in control of what you say, regardless of what the interviewer asks, and even if you don’t answer the question that they’re asking, you can still give them the information they need to know that you’re the right person for the job.