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7 Strategies for Dealing With Inappropriate Interview Questions and More

Tim Truzy is a rehabilitation counselor, educator, and former dispatcher from North Carolina.

Waiting for a phone call about an interview can be stressful.

Waiting for a phone call about an interview can be stressful.

Inappropriate Topics for an Interview

People may sit anxiously waiting for a phone call from an employer, excited about the potential of an interview. Although employers are aware they may ask about work history, educational experience, professional values, and decision making, they may still unintentionally ask inappropriate questions during the interview. Interviews are conducted by people, and human beings can make mistakes. However, below are strategies to help you during those times when the interview question seems to cross into the unacceptable areas.

As a rehabilitation counselor, I worked with my clients on how to address those times when the interviewer performs poorly. Below are some techniques I aided clients with before the interview occurred. I informed my clients a rule of thumb for interviews happens to be: any topic relevant to the job being applied for is appropriate for discussion. In addition, employers must not engage in discriminatory practices as a result of queries at interviews. Essentially, if the question is not pertaining to job functions, then it shouldn't be asked. Below are some categories of questions interviewers must legally avoid in the United States.

Disability status is a subject to be avoided during interviews.

Disability status is a subject to be avoided during interviews.

Categories of Illegal Questions

  • Marital status, pregnancy, or family
  • Gender identification and age-related inquiries
  • Race, ethnicity, color, etc., and religion
  • Country of origin and status of disability

7 Strategies for Dealing With Inappropriate Interview Questions

Since people conduct interviews, missteps may occur in the way information is asked and/or provided. Some mistakes may be unintentional. Others may be deliberate and unethical. It is up to you to determine the importance of the potential job in deciding how to address out-of-bound inquiries. These are not the only useful strategies for dealing with missteps by interviewers, but these are starting ideas for you to think about before meeting with your potential employer. Remember: In answering everything correctly, you still may not be hired by the firm.

1. Ignore the Fact That the Query Is Illegal

You may say something such as: “I usually don’t discuss the subject of your question. Can we proceed to the next topic?”

2. indicate That the Question Being Asked Is Prohibited by Law

Although this may be embarrassing to an employer, you can explain you would still like to proceed with the interview. In this scenario, you may say: “Although that is an issue which should not be discussed legally at an interview, I still would like to continue in this employment meeting.”

3. Ask for Clarification

If an interviewer makes an inappropriate inquiry, you may seek clarification using an open-ended question. For example, an interviewer may ask about age by saying: “The tech field is full of hotshot young folk. How are you going to fit in here because most of our employees are straight from college?”

You may respond: “Did you mean the rapid pace of tech innovation may be exhausting? I have successfully helped launch several technology start-ups in this area and working long hours is not a problem for me when the job must be completed.” In this example, the interviewee sidestepped the issue of age and focused on the job requirements to keep the interview moving forward.

4. Decide to Answer the Question

You may respond to the question. Yet, there is no guarantee answering an inappropriate question in an interview will be in your best interests. Therefore, carefully weigh the importance of whether you should respond to an illegal or inappropriate inquiry during an interview. However, you always have the right to decline answering an inappropriate question.

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5. Stop and Think Before You Answer

Pausing before answering a question can give you time to respond professionally to inappropriate inquiries during an interview. For instance, an interviewer may say: “My son really enjoys watching football. Do your children participate in sports?”

You may answer: “When I’m working on a job, I treat it with care and show determination to get it right. My job becomes an important part of my life, like any family I may have. I will always be on time and complete my work. I have a strong reference from Company XYZ. They complimented my skills at multitasking and taking the initiative for getting projects completed in a timely manner.”

In this example, the interviewee returned the focus to the job for which the interview was being conducted.

Rescheduling or halting the interview can be useful tactics when inappropriate inquiries are made.

Rescheduling or halting the interview can be useful tactics when inappropriate inquiries are made.

6. Reschedule the Interview

This is a drastic step. But constantly receiving inappropriate questions may be a signal the interviewer was not prepared. This strategy works occasionally, but you are competing against others for the job. Understand taking this step may result in the employer not wanting to interview you later.
In this situation, you may say: “I understand your schedule is overwhelming. Would you like to reschedule this interview?”

7. Terminate the Interview

If the interview continues to focus on inappropriate subjects, you have the right to simply end the meeting. However, this may have the consequence of you not being able to find work with the employer. Yet, if you must decide to end an interview, you have made the decision that the business or organization wasn’t the right fit for you.

Getting Ready for Your Interview

There are a few things you can do to help prepare for your interview. Indeed, the interviewer may make mistakes. Therefore, you should be ready to deal with those instances. The best method is for you to have done your “homework” on the employer. Be sure to have practiced responses ready which reflect who you are as a person while providing the employer with adequate information.

  • Practice an introduction: Write a few paragraphs about your skills, interests, abilities, and knowledge relevant to the position you want to be interviewed for eventually. Verbally practice this introduction aloud, trimming it down, or adding more facts as needed. Remember: you want to keep it brief.
  • Get valuable feedback: Include a trusted family member or friend to help you. Let them pretend to be the interviewer. Engage in a mock interview with the person.
  • Try addressing inappropriate questions with your ally: Before initiating the practice interviews, ask your friend/family member to bring up unacceptable topics. Together gauge your response after the mock interview. With your ally, examine your overall strengths and weaknesses after several practices.
  • Observe interviews on the Internet: Watching and listening to others in interviews will give you some basis of how to interact with a potential employer. Many such interviews can be found on the internet.
  • Visit a company’s website: Checking out the businesses website can give you more details about the products and/or services the company provides. Also, reading about the business or organization will help you better prepare answers to questions in the interview.
  • Use your resources: Many states in America have county and state-based organizations dedicated to helping individuals locate work. These organizations may also provide training with handling interview questions. There are also nonprofits devoted to the same objective. A search on the internet should give you their locations and contact information. Other countries may have similar agencies and groups.
  • Have your resume and references ready: This means having your resume written in order to give to the interviewer. Also, speak with people you may have worked with in the past. Some may be willing to provide a good reference.
Interviews may be held in non-traditional settings.

Interviews may be held in non-traditional settings.

Expanding your Awareness of Interviews

Knowing how to prepare for interviews gives us insight into how to deal with inappropriate questions. Today, many interviews occur in non-traditional settings, such as on the floor of a warehouse, in restaurants, or even in agricultural environments, like the one in the photo. It depends on the work, the company, and the product/service provided by the business or organization as to how the interview will be conducted. Having some understanding of how to address illegal topics can better prepare you regardless of where the interview occurs. Inevitably, you must make the decision as to how you want to approach unacceptable interview questions. For more on preparing for interviews and appropriate conversations at work, visit my articles on this site.


Yeager, N., & Hough, L. (1998). Power interviews: Job-winning tactics from Fortune 500 Recruiters. New York: John Wiley.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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