I Can’t Believe You Said That?! How to Handle the Awkward/Bad/Inappropriate Interview Questions
When what you really want to say is, “Do you know that was your out loud voice?”
If you can sit around with a group of professionals and ask them about the strangest interview experiences, you will hear some funny and bizarre stories. Why are manhole covers round? If you had an elephant, where would you hide him? These are examples of weird yet seemingly harmless questions. It tells you a few things about the interviewer. It might mean that they are quirky, but likely means they want to see how you handle unknown situations. Show them that you handle this with grace, composure, and a little humor. Pause, smile, and say almost the first thing that comes to mind, which could be a question back. “Why would I hide him? Maybe I should charge admission for others to see my elephant?” “I’m surprised our PC culture has renamed them person-holes yet.”
One of the most common, not great interview questions, which shows a lack of interviewer or company sophistication, is the infamous “What is your greatest weakness?” Most of us are working from a strengths-based mentality where we focus ourselves and our teams on our greatest gifts. Instead of striving to be incrementally better at our weaknesses, we simply spend less time on them. Here is how to rock that question:
“I have a desire to be great at building online learning modules and have spent many hours learning Articulate 360. After several hours of training, however, I am only incrementally more proficient. I have accepted that my gift is in the design of the training strategy and in-person delivery. My teammate, Karen, is good at building online modules, so our team is highly productive when we both focus on our talents.”
“Similar to understanding that I’ll never be a great cook at home, I’ve accepted that my many business skills don’t include graphic design. I appreciate this skill/talent in others and have a good eye for detail, but I excel at the conceptual design over the art direction.”
Some questions are more awkward, which only you can decide how you want to handle them. In our experience, these are usually asked in innocence to be conversational and without an appreciation for their inappropriateness. Answering is optional, but how you decline may impact your candidacy.
“Do you have children?” Most people will not come out and ask this until you mention children along the way, and then they feel like it is safe if you opened the door. They might follow up with, “How old are your children?” Answer directly or be a little evasive by saying something like, “oh, they are teenagers now.” Do not elaborate on how this may or may not impact your work-do not tie the two together in their minds and invite more dialogue on this topic. If you do not feel like answering, you can lob a question back with, “What comments do you hear from employees about work/life balance opportunities here?”
Another form of awkwardness is asking about a gap in your resume. It looks like you were unemployed from 2008–2011.” That is not actually a question, so use that to your advantage. It is a statement, although the underlying question is, “Why, what were you doing?” Some possible responses are:
I had the opportunity to focus on my professional development and take courses in management.
Yes, that was an incredible opportunity to step away from full-time employment to focus on other personal and professional interests. What else can I answer about my professional background?
I had always wanted to travel the country and realized I might not have the opportunity later in life.
There is nothing to be embarrassed about regardless of why you were not working. You might have been fired, ill, taking time to care for family or children, incarcerated. The point is that it is not relevant to your job qualifications, but sometimes you must play a little verbal judo to get the interview back to relevancy. Try to remain calm and collected and not defensive. Some candidates will exhale as if their Achilles heel was just uncovered. Keep your head up high and act like its no big deal, not worthy of a long discussion, and perhaps something that even makes you proud.
Another awkward form of interviewing is where the interviewer answers his own questions. “So, you’re really experienced with Word and Excel, and you’re comfortable with public speaking.” Those are not questions, and yet some reply or response is expected. Smile, nod, and build on the statement. “I have a great example of a recent Excel project that I can share with you.” Wait for a cue that he is interested in hearing it, and then proceed. Or, ask a question in response to his statement. “What would you say are the common types of presentations or public speaking engagements I would encounter in this role?”
Beyond awkward and amateur questions are the ones that are just inappropriate or illegal. These would include gender, race, ethnicity, physical disability, harassment, sexual harassment, or discussions of illegal or unethical expectations or actions. Someone should not test you with these in the interview. If you want to answer a question in this category, it is a personal choice but is not required. The unfortunate reality is how you answer and react will still part of the interview process and might impact their decision making. If someone crosses the line, you might not want to work with/for them anyway. Sometimes, you can tell that it is interviewer’s ignorance rather than ill intention and might choose to let the recruiter know afterward for coaching and feedback but go with the flow for the sake of a successful interview.
The most important tip is not to let them see you sweat. Do not curse, raise your voice, and only walk out if you feel physically threatened or would never want to work for that organization. Otherwise, try to get the interview back on track with a statement like, “I don’t know what the company’s philosophy is on this topic, but in my experience, we try to focus on interview discussions that are relevant to the job qualifications.” If they combined bad form with an inappropriate question and made a statement like “It looks like you have some Native American heritage.” You do not have to respond at all and can sit and look at them until they ask another question. We have found that an effective and subtle response is simply, “Oh.”
Learn more about interviewing today in our Job Search Playbook.