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What to say when you’re asked an overly personal interview question

It may not be legal, but interviewers can still lob questions about mental health and marital status, so best to be prepared.

What to say when you’re asked an overly personal interview question
[Source photo: Alex Green/Pexels]
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I have had more conversations than I ever imagined I would with my female junior colleagues about whether they should wear their wedding rings to interviews. Many have been counseled or have read in some advice column that they should not wear a ring, or anything else that might indicate to an interviewer their personal situation. In my experience, most of my colleagues ultimately decide not to wear a ring. They don’t want questions asked about their partner or children that could make potential employers doubt their seriousness about the position or likelihood of relocating. Clearly, your decision to divulge your personal status—as a wife, mother, or racial or sexual minority—is a deeply personal one.

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It is also a highly consequential decision, as research shows that divulging such information in an interview can impact how potential employers view an applicant’s seriousness about the job, willingness to work long hours, and, ultimately, their likelihood of offering them a job. In one study of academic hiring, sociologist Lauren Rivera, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, concluded from her field observations of hiring meetings that academic hiring committees “actively considered women’s—but not men’s—relationship status when selecting hires” in ways that ultimately disadvantaged women. In another study by psychologists Alexander Jordan and Emily Zitek, participants who discovered that job applicants were either single or married from fictional Facebook pages rated married female applicants as less hardworking and less well-suited for a demanding job than single female applicants.

I think we can agree that someone’s marital status should not determine whether or not they get hired for a job. And yet, whether explicitly or implicitly, it does seem to play a role in hiring decisions. This is why we have protections for job candidates that allow them to keep this—and other—information private if they so choose. Questions about marital status, pregnancy, religion, and mental health, to name a few, should not be asked—not necessarily because they are illegal to ask per se, but rather because they open up the possibility that a candidate’s answer to the question could be used against them in the hiring process. Ultimately, it’s better not to know an applicant is pregnant, for example, so there is no chance of that impacting your decision about whether to hire her.

If it’s best not to know, it’s probably best not to ask. And yet this is a place where many of us slip up. We often forget how hard it is for people to refuse a request, or avoid answering a question, particularly when that question comes from a potential employer.

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In one study of applicants to medical residency programs, researchers found that 66%—more than 7,000 out of about 11,000 survey respondents—reported having been asked a potentially illegal interview question. Fifty-three percent, or more than 5,700, of interviewees reported having been asked about their marital status, and 24%, or more than 2,500 interviewees, reported being asked if they had children or were planning to have children. Not surprisingly, these questions were more likely to be directed at women than men. Applicants also reported having been asked about their age, religion, and sexual orientation—all of which is protected class information, meaning that employers cannot legally use this information to make hiring decisions. And yet, as we saw above, once you have this information, it’s hard not to let it color your judgment of a candidate, for better or worse.

According to the numerous interview advice articles out there targeted to interviewees, if you are a job candidate and are asked one of these questions, you should “politely decline to answer.” That’s good advice—in theory. But the research shows it’s much more difficult to decline to answer such questions than we realize. For example, in one study, women faced with an interviewer asking obviously inappropriate sexual questions felt too uncomfortable and afraid to refuse to answer, despite being sure they would refuse when considering such a situation hypothetically. It’s similarly difficult to “politely decline to answer” personally sensitive questions about whether you are married or planning to have children. We are loath to offend others—particularly someone who controls an outcome as important as a potential job offer—and refusing to answer a question feels like a surefire way to insinuate an interviewer’s insensitivity for asking it in the first place. It’s not exactly the kind of rapport most interviewees hope to establish with an interviewer.

Thus, most people do indeed agree to answer personal questions in interviews, even if it means disclosing information about their personal lives they would otherwise like to keep private. As part of a working research project, organizational behavior researchers Catherine Shea, Sunita Sah, and Ashley Martin found in one study that 83% of interviewees felt obligated to answer personal questions. And although interviewers in this study were more likely to view these questions as a helpful means of getting to know a candidate, interviewees were more likely to view them as discriminatory. Ultimately, Shea and colleagues found, this has negative consequences for both interviewees and employers. Not surprisingly, based on the research reviewed earlier, interviewees who were asked questions about their marital and family status were less likely to be offered the job. And as for the candidates who were offered the job? It turns out they were less likely to take it. Similarly, in the survey of medical residency applicants described earlier, a sizable percentage of applicants who were asked this kind of personal information in an interview reported downgrading the offending program on their ranking list as a result. Therefore, it isn’t just interviewees who lose out, but interviewers as well.

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Most of us want to be good people. We don’t want to discriminate against job candidates, and we try to adhere to the rules that are in place to protect people from employment discrimination. But we also want to connect with people, and we know that small talk can be awkward. We may try to split the difference by asking a personal question, while assuring a candidate that they don’t have to answer it. “So, do you have kids?— I’m not really supposed to ask you that, so don’t feel like you have to answer.” But, of course, interviewees don’t really feel like they can refuse to answer those kinds of questions. So, they answer, uncomfortably. And our failure to recognize the pressure our questions put on other people to respond can have real consequences for individual candidates and employers, as well as for diversity and representation in the workplace more broadly.


Vanessa Bohns is a social psychologist and associate professor of organizational behavior and psychology at Cornell University. She is the author of You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate our Power of Persuasion and Why it Matters.

Excerpted from You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters. Copyright (c) 2021 by Vanessa Bohns. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.