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An expert guide on how to handle inappropriate questions during job interviews

Job interviews are often intense and gruelling processes, where candidates face multiple tough questions to determine their suitability for any given role.

However, there are lines of questioning that are in fact unsuitable and John Watkins, Director of Employability at The University of Law Business School has looked in detail at what you shouldn’t be asked in an interview setting.

Questions about age, ancestry, citizenship, credit rating, criminal record, disabilities, family status, gender, military discharge, or religion are all topics which potential employers should not be asked directly of a candidate.

Here are some examples of what employers shouldn’t ask:

  1. Are you from the UK/ Is English your first language?
  2. Are you married?
  3. How old are you?
  4. How many sickness days did you take in your last period of employment?
  5. Do you have any previous criminal convictions?

While the intent of these questions may be to determine if a candidate is suitable for the job, it is important to know that only information relevant to their ability to excel in the advertised role can and should be asked.

To help potential candidates avoid awkward situations during job interviews, the employability team at ULaw Business School has shared advice on how to respond if faced with inappropriate questions.

Ask the interviewer to clarify the question

When inappropriate questions are asked, people can understandably become concerned they did not hear the question correctly. It is acceptable to ask the interviewer to clarify the question. Ask then for the interviewer to explain how the question relates to the position you are applying for. Posing a question diplomatically, such as “Apologies, but I am not sure I heard your question correctly” is a good way to give the interviewer a chance to recognise that they have asked something unsuitable.


Provide a one-word answer

If you feel that the question is in any way inappropriate or you have been offended by it, feel free to give a one-word answer. Just take a deep breath and simply answer with a “Yes” or a “No”, but with a smile. You may know your rights, but you do not want to come off as a rude and know-it-all-person. It’s best to be professional in a professional place even if the other party isn’t.

Change the subject by going back to the previous questions asked

You can avoid answering inappropriate interview questions by redirecting the focus back to topics already covered. This way, you can evade the question while still sounding optimistic and professional. If you’re asked about something you don’t want to answer, use your response to put the focus back on the knowledge and skills you could bring and add to the role you’re interviewing for, therefore making the most of a potentially difficult situation.

Address the issue

Some interviewers may ask about your race or if you are single. These questions have no room in a professional setting, especially in an interview. It is perfectly acceptable to respond accordingly and challenge the interviewer. If you feel offended or uncomfortable after being asked an inappropriate question, address your reasons for not answering the question and why you think it’s unsuitable.

John Watkins from ULaw, commented: “Interviews are always tough, but being subject to unprofessional questioning can make it even harder. Knowing how to respond to an interview question that has rightly made you feel uneasy can be tricky.

“You always have the option to refuse to answer or to end the interview. While unsuitable questions may be indicative of poor company policies and could be a red flag, they could also be a sign of an inexperienced hiring manager, so gaining clarity where you feel appropriate is a good first step in communication

“By knowing your rights as a job applicant, you can steer the conversation in a way that protects you. When beginning your next job search, start by looking up interview questions an employer cannot ask and practice how to respond if they come up as a safety measure. This will ensure you won’t be caught off guard and can focus on acing your interview and landing the job.”