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Handle interview questions with finesse

Answer an illegal or inappropriate question the wrong way and it can kill an interview.

Having passed the screening interview, Margaret was glad to be meeting with the hiring manager. This second interview was going smoothly and she was feeling quite confident. Suddenly, Margaret was caught completely off guard when her interviewer abruptly asked, “How old are you?” She quickly became flustered, mumbled her age and the interview went downhill from there.

Illegal questions

In Canada, discriminatory questions are clearly illegal for interviewers to ask. Still, we live in a real world, where inappropriate questions do come up from time to time. As a professional interview strategist, I advise my clients to determine questions that they might find offensive in advance of the actual interview. Then practice responding to various unsavoury, but possible questions.

Linda Schnabel, certified career and professional development coach and founder of Career Works ( reminds us that few interviewers are trained to do the job. “Many lack skills required to be successful in this role,” Schnabel says. “However, it is the wise interviewee who counts on running into a less than proficient interviewer and plans ahead to strategically manage such encounters.”

Schnabel suggests, in all likelihood, inappropriate questions are not meant to be provocative. “A candidate may wish to ‘turn the question over’ in an effort to discern intention,” she says. “We call this approach ‘dual perspective.'”

For example, with the “how old are you?” question, you can put yourself in the interviewer’s shoes and visualize the reason for the question. Schnabel explains: “If you are a 21-year-old college graduate, the question might be related to the degree of experience you have attained thus far in your life. Conversely, if you are a 55-year-old professional, your interviewer might be questioning your depth of commitment to ongoing job tenure with his company or he might be wondering about your health.”

She counsels that it is important to respond with empathy and grace. For example, instead of coming out directly with “I will be 22 next month,” he or she may want to diplomatically respond with something more like this: “I can appreciate that in today’s market, age can become a barrier. However, if it’s health you’re concerned about, let me assure you that during the past 15 years I haven’t taken a single sick day.”

Simple tactic
Audrey Field, an international career transition specialist operating Resume Resources (, suggests a simple tactic to respond to a question that takes you off guard — answer a question with a question. For example, when asked how old you are, you could respond with “Sorry Mr. Smith, but you’ll have to help me out here. How does this impact my work performance?”

Schnabel adds that you should be strategic with your answers. “Try to satisfy the potential concern,” she says. “Don’t bluntly announce that this is an illegal question and you simply refuse to answer it. First, you will embarrass the interviewer if he is unaware of this. Secondly, you will close the interview down in one split second. And, thirdly, you will give your interviewer reason to believe that you are tactless in awkward social situations.”

Field offers this food for thought: “It is great if you have confidently handled or sidestepped inappropriate interview questions. However, you may want to critically evaluate whether this is a place where you would like to work. If the tone of the interviewer is indicative of the overall corporate culture, you may not really enjoy working there.”

In an interview scenario, your goal is to get the job offer. Most illegal questions are asked in ignorance, not out of malice. Many employers do not perform interviews on a regular basis. Untrained interviewers are often genuinely trying to be friendly. Your interviewer may be unaware that the question is illegal. Next time, consider this important point before making a rash decision.

Sharon Graham is a professional resume writer, employment interview strategist and author. She is executive director of Career Professionals of Canada and services job seekers though her consulting firm Graham Management Group,