The View From the Other Side of the Table

Susan Heathfield, shares a story of a clueless candidate she interviewed. (He listed his wife as a reference–depending on who did the dishes the previous night, that reference may or may not have been positive.) She asks for additional stories about bad interviews.

I think there are equally frightening stories from the worker’s side of the table. Once, an interviewer asked me, “Do you need health insurance?” I was young and naive and didn’t realize what he was really asking. By answering, he could easily ascertain my marital status. While the EEOC won’t come after you for discriminating on the basis of marital status, the state I lived in would. He was being so clever and I was so naive I answered the question, honestly. (Yes, yes, in fact, I do need health insurance, as I may get hit by a truck/get pneumonia/develop a life threatening hangnail tomorrow.)

I didn’t get the job. (Just as well, it would have been intensely dull and boring and who wants to work for such a person?)

If I’m ever asked that question again, I know how I’ll answer it: “Does this job offer health insurance?” That turns the tables back on the interviewer and removes any legitimate reason he may have had for asking in the first place.

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13 thoughts on “The View From the Other Side of the Table

  1. I guess I’m still young and naive. My answer to that would always be yes. After all, it might be better than what my husband’s company provides. Which is the way it’s been for the last seven years….

    But I guess you’re trying to say that by saying you needed health insurance you were revealing that you were single and they only wanted to hire married women? Out of curiosity, why would they expect that? I would think married women would be a bigger risk for leaving the work force because they might have children.

    Not that an answer to any of that really matters. I understand that the point is they were trying to get information from you that they were legally not allowed to ask about.

    Is it bad to reveal your marital status and personal details when looking for a job? I know I wouldn’t want to say that I want such and such to accomodate childcare, but does it really look bad to mention it one way or the other? I’m not sure I have enough conversational acumen to dance around the topic during the small talk portions of interviews without saying something offensively blunt such as “you don’t need to know that.” And I’m not sure I want to work for someone that wouldn’t hire me because of my marital status. Of course, I’d never know if it was a postive influence instead.

  2. While interviewing for my current position, the professor I was to be working directly for asked me to name the “three greatest inventions and/or discoveries of all time.”

    Um, the position was for an Admin Asst. I wasn’t really ready to delve into a deep philosophical discussion.

    My answer, while not terribly genius-like, was at least halfway decent, or so I thought. Said professor made me feel like an idiot, though, after questioning me as to *why why why* would you say *that*?!

    I was going to turn down the job if it was offered to me, because really, who wants to work for someone like that? However, circumstances with my husband’s (rapidly deteriorating) job situation forced me to accept. Luckily for me, the professor has not shown any further a-hole tendencies since I started.

    Of course, it’s only been 3 weeks …

  3. I had a job interview once where the guy actually said “You’re not planning on getting married and having any children, are you?”

    I know why he said it … because I was being hired to replace someone who swore she was coming back from maternity leave and then didn’t. And I had some connections to the place and knew the guy a little, so I didn’t worry too much about it.

    But yeah … not a shining moment for legal job interviewing.

  4. Why OH WHY don’t people ask me these questions in interviews? I would have a hay-day with them. Maybe it is because I look scary. Hmm.

  5. People ask those questions in interviews mostly because they have no idea in the world:

    (a) how to interview
    (b) what the desired accomplishments of the job are
    (c) how to relate (a) to (b)

    …and because no one ever watches them while they interview.

  6. I’m White British was applying for a job that would use Arabic on a daily basis a couple of months ago and the interviewer, who had previously said f*** to prove how laid back the office was, asked me “This may sound like a stupid question, but why would a ‘whitey’ learn Arabic?” It wasn’t a stupid question, it was rather insulting though. I don’t know if it’s illegal to use terms like that in an interview. I didn’t get the job, but after that I didn’t want to work there anyway.

  7. Fifi, if that was in Britain then discrimination on the grounds of race is illegal in the interview process (and throughout employment, not to mention life in general!). It might be tough to prove that you didn’t get the job because of your race, but frankly if that’s their interview style I doubt they’d be able to prove you wrong. However, as you say, it’s not somewhere you’d want to work.

  8. My worst interview story would be when HR at a previous employer reported into corporate counsel and the SVP interviewing an HR candidate asked her what her parents did for a living and where they lived (smart guy with a JD right, WOW) anyway she told him, and her story is interesting her father committed suicide when she was a young girl and she was raised by her mother who had a drug addiction and she hadn’t seen her in years. Luckily she was hired and therefore didn’t take any legal action against us, and lucky again this gem of an HR professional was also a self proclaimed psychic and would freak out employees by telling them what they were thinking (she was way off on me, so who knows if her abilities were real or perceived) anyway lucky us again when she quit after winning a state beauty pageant.

  9. I just found out that a former colleague and my former manager were brainstorming the interview questions for my replacement (in an open-plan office) and a friend told me the colleague said, “Why don’t we get a block of ice from the freezer, put it on the table and get them to sell it to us?” The position is a sales one, but we don’t sell ice. Apparantly, my former manager politely turned this suggestion down. I’m glad I’m not getting interviewed by these people!

  10. Thanks for the clarification Anon. The position was in the UK. Some people suggested I should complain but since I didn’t get the job I reckon it’d only come across as sour grapes. I didn’t get the job because the interviewer was racist, I didn’t get it because I wasn’t knowledgeable enough about the area, but part of me wishes I’d said something just as a wake up call that any type of language in an interview really isn’t professional, and could be potentially open for litigation.

  11. Several years ago I interviewed for a job as an accountant for a trade association. After asking a few questions about my credentials, the interviewer asked me what my husband does for a living. I wasn’t really thinking so I answered him but I found it very annoying, because who were they trying to hire? The zinger that I thought of later when it would do no good would have been, “Oh, do you have a job open for him as well?” Or something clever like that.

    All the time I’ve spent fuming about that particular one has done me little good; no one has ever asked me exactly that question again.

    I did, however, come up with a sort of all-purpose zinger that I use when somebody asks me a question that is astonishingly illegal, impolite and/or irrelevant: “Oh, is that an issue with this position?”

    See, that would answer the what-does-your-husband-do and do-you-need-insurance equally well, without committing you to actually saying something you shouldn’t have to.

    I don’t think it would actually help you get a job, but it does let you escape those wouldn’t-want-to-work-here places without feeling like you lost out because you idiotically let them trick you into divulging protected information. If I’m not going to get the job, I’d rather not get the job because they think I’m too smart for them. Then I can smirk and say “Their loss.”

  12. Oh, and practicing my all-purpose zinger has been my therapy whenever I start feeling stupid about answering questions honestly . . . and I have actually managed to pull it off in a few interviews. I’ve found that if the questioner did not have a malicious purpose in asking, that they will take my response as a real question and go on and explain why they asked or how it relates to the position – they don’t realize that they just got plugged between the eyes. So then I pretend that they didn’t.


  13. When I was in my early 20’s interviewing for my first HR job, in one of the interviews I was asked “what is the most difficult personal situation you have ever faced”. I was temporarily struck mute at facing this question from someone I don’t know and in a JOB interview. I asked if it could be work-related, and she said “No, I want a personal situation”.

    I was young and naive and I answered it honestly. I got a call back for a second interview, however I turned it down because I felt so abused by being forced to reveal a past personal struggle in an job interview with a perfect stranger! Live and learn. Today, I probably would have just relayed a work situation, whether she liked the answer or not.

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