Plenty of companies (especially in tech) are hiring this year. Yet when so many job seekers are jockeying to show off their technical chops and emotional intelligence, there are still times when the interviewer throws a major curveball.
While we’ve reported how to avoid some serious faux pas, sometimes there’s no anticipating what the interviewer might have up their sleeve. So here are several anecdotes we’ve gathered from a group of professionals sharing either their personal experiences or their clients’ perspectives.
Are We In A Bar In 1974?
That’s probably the last place someone would have approached you and asked you about your astrological sign to determine compatibility. However, Jackie Smith, senior PR manager for a public relations agency in Dallas, experienced this less than five years ago.
“I was on the job hunt after being laid off from an entertainment company in 2012. A photographer friend connected me to a woman who owned an architecture and design firm who wanted someone who could help get her and her projects more media attention. Our initial conversation went well, and then during phone call No. 3 she asked, ‘What’s your sign?’ I asked, ‘You mean, like astrological sign?’ She confirmed that she did, and I responded that I was a Cancer. She replied, ‘Oh good, I’m a (whatever her sign was). We’ll get along well.’ Fortunately, she was flaky and I didn’t hear from her again for a few weeks. I did not pursue the position after that and told her that I was looking at roles that more closely aligned with my background.”
It’s common for an interviewer to ask about your background, so it’s best to practice your elevator pitch to ensure that you sound confident and accomplished, but your sign probably doesn’t have much to do with your job abilities.
Can You Be A Guitar Or A Saxophone?
You may not find Nate Tolley, a senior account executive with the Hoffman Agency, a digital communications company, playing concert halls as a side gig. However, musical training could come in handy if an interviewer lobs this question your way.
“Shortly after graduating from college, I was applying for a position and going through the interview stages pretty quickly. During the in-person interview, they threw a curveball for the final question. ‘We like to envision ourselves as a band, marching behind the CEO as he beats the drums of success. What instrument would you describe yourself as? And you can’t pick drums–that’s reserved for the CEO.’ After answering, they made me enact the sound of the instrument I chose.”
Stunned by the question, Tolley blurted out the first instrument that came to mind–an ocarina. “I emulated it by putting my hands in an ocarina-ish shape (hands clasped together, all fingers other than pointers interlocked, pointer fingers straight out, hands pointed up so pointer fingers were near my mouth), and badly whistling a few basic notes.” A job offer followed. “I ended up working there for three months before moving on,” he recalls.
One career expert suggests that for hypothetical questions like this, it’s best to stick with a real-world example.
Are You A Republican Or A Democrat?
During such divisive times in politics, it’s tough to figure out how you should position yourself if you want a job. And sometimes that’s not easily evident. Take Ann Baron*, a career transition expert at RiseSmart, who remembers being quizzed about her reading preferences as a preface to a deeper probe.
“During my very first interview after graduating from college, I was interviewed by one of the senior level recruiters at a recruiting firm in Boston. She asked what the last book I read was. I should have said Old Yeller in fourth grade, as I was never much of a reader. I struggled with the answer a bit and wondered where she was going with it. She followed that question with what she was really getting at and asked me if I was a Republican or a Democrat. I was hired later as a recruiter and on many occasions, I called her on it. She always smiled and denied it ever happened.”
According to the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), there are no federal laws that prohibit private employers from asking political affiliation questions (but laws regarding discrimination based on political affiliation, activity, or belief vary by state). The ask may have more to do with changes in corporate practices, as well as election and labor laws, allowing American private-sector managers to send political appeals to their staff and even require workers to participate in political activities, according to Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, the author of Politics at Work.
May I Ask A (Really) Personal Question?
Mark Johnson*, a career transition expert at RiseSmart, has two scenarios in which clients were asked some deeply personal questions–but agreed to answer them anyway.
“My client was interviewing for an events management position with a billionaire hotel mogul in Las Vegas where he had to go through armed guards and dogs to get into this person’s office in the penthouse. The billionaire then asked him why he adopted children instead of having them ‘naturally,’ what religion he was, and how he met his wife. My client chose to answer all of the questions, knowing he was walking into an unusual situation. I don’t recall if he got that job.
“Another client applying for a product engineering position was asked, ‘Do you have kids at home?’ The client felt that was an unusual question but answered with a ‘yes’ and left it at that. The questioning didn’t keep going around family and personal inquiries, so it was out of place and odd. The client felt weirded out enough that they lost interest in the opportunity because they felt the company was weeding out candidates with bias.”
Like recent practices to ask candidates to work out with the hiring team or texting them outside of an interview to see how fast they respond, it’s actually illegal to ask questions about marital status, children (even if someone is visibly pregnant), religion, or even their hobbies (because they could reveal a disability).
According to Michelle Lee Flores, a labor and employment attorney with the law firm akerman, a candidate doesn’t have to answer any of these questions, unless it is legally relevant to a position. At that point it becomes a “bona fide occupational qualification,” says Flores. For example, if a job requirement is lifting heavy objects or driving a vehicle, certain health conditions could prevent a worker from performing those tasks.
How To Deal With Uncomfortable Questions
“When you get an uncomfortable question in an interview, it’s good to maintain your sense of humor,” says Penelope Brackett, practice development manager at RiseSmart. People will occasionally say unusual things, she points out, and it’s best to remain calm, curious, and steadfast.
“Take a deep breath and give yourself time to respond,” she advises. At this point, it’s helpful to remember that you learn about them, too, which gives you back some control over the conversation. When you’re ready to reply, says Brackett, simply say, “That’s not a question I can answer. However, is there a concern about the job underlying that question that I can answer for you?”
When the interview is over, she adds, take some time to reflect on the experience. “You’ll want to consider if this is someone you will be directly working with or if this is someone you want to work for.”
*Editor’s note: Ann Baron’s and Mark Johnson’s names have been changed at their request to remain private.