Beware This Interview Trap

By Denise Kalm, BCC, Career Coach

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All interviewers know the kinds of questions they aren’t allowed to ask.  How old are you?  Do you have a family?  Do you or your family have health issues?  But savvy interviewers can elicit a lot of information from you, while not asking questions that violate employment law.  This kind of information can eliminate you from consideration even if you meet all the stated requirements. Knowing about the risks you face can help you plan for it.  Consider that even if an interviewer isn’t trying to trap you, if you give it away, all this information will factor into their decision.


A useful interviewing technique is to make you feel as comfortable as possible.  While hiring managers may actually care about your comfort, your personal life and want you to like them, others hope you get relaxed enough to reveal more information than you should.  They might talk about their family and how the company supports work-life balance. This invites you to talk about your family, but don’t.  Until you are hired, you want them to think that you live for work and can’t wait to get started on your first 10-hour day. 


A parallel approach is to take a tough interview stance designed to rattle you into talking.  Though less common, it often has the same effect.  Your well-planned answers dry up, you get tongue-tied and you say more than you wanted to.


Interviews at meals or coffee shops can be similarly disarming.  It’s always easier to be in ‘interview mode’ when you are escorted into an office or conference room at the company site. 


Here are some sample questions/comments that can trip you up.

  1. We have a great program to enlist and support people with disabilities. Would you like to learn more about this?
  2. We consider ourselves family-friendly. Are you interested in learning about some of our programs?
  3. Tell me why you are looking for a new job.  (Have this prepared in advance.  They will ask.  Focus on the future with only one line indicating your reason.  This reason, even if true, should not relate to your own or your family’s challenges.)
  4. How long are you planning to keep working? (This question, generally addressed to older workers, is not about determining your loyalty. They really wish to know when you plan to retire).  Always talk about a future with them and a career path.
  5. Where did you go to college? When did you attend?  (While sounding like they are connecting with you on shared interests and experiences, it is really an age question).
  6. How many years have you been in this field?
  7. We do require travel/overtime for this job. Is that an issue for you?  (This is checking on family responsibilities.


If an interviewer directly asks you something you know isn’t permitted—check the employment law in your state to know the key areas you can keep private—be polite, but firm. 


“I’m really excited to have a chance to work here.  Perhaps we can discuss family/personal life/etc. over lunch when I come on board.”


You don’t want to be rude, but you shouldn’t get tricked into revealing too much. Remember, even if it is illegal to ask, it’s very hard to prove that you were denied employment because of this question.  And speaking freely can easily limit your options.


Be careful not to volunteer information.


To avoid falling in to a trap when interviewing by phone or Skype, dress for the interview, as if you were there. Close all browsers, games, IM windows, etc.  Focus completely on the interview with your prepared notes next to your system.  Act as if you are actually there in person and you’ll be in charge.


Once you know this is a potential trap, you can plan for it.  Stay relaxed and friendly, but know that an unplanned response can result in fewer opportunities.  And if you aren’t sure what they are asking you, get clarity with a question.  Many people have been eliminated from consideration because they answered a question without fully understanding what the interviewer wanted.


Remember:  in early interviews, it’s all about what you can do for them and how you will fit into the culture.  Don’t give them the ammunition to halt your progress.


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