Question

questions recruiters askI’d like to ask you about questions recruiters ask. I had a call with a recruiter for a well-known recruiting firm. It was a “get to know you so we can potentially work together in the future” type of call. During our conversation the recruiter asks where my family lives. I tell her some of my family is in X state and my husband’s family is in Y. That being said, I am open to various locations. Then she asks where my parents live. In the moment I am thinking, does she really need this info? But I tell her they are not in the U.S. Then she asks, “So where are they?”

Am I obliged to answer this question, especially when it comes across as pushy? I want to give her the benefit of the doubt that she is looking out for me but it made me uncomfortable. How should I handle it in the future?

Nick’s Reply

You are never obliged to answer any questions that make you feel uncomfortable. And I agree — something’s up with that recruiter. I cannot imagine how your parents’ place of residence would affect your job.

How will that help you place me?

There is no reason to not ask why she needs to know. You can reject any question you feel is too personal, illegal, or indicative of bias — especially if the recruiter offers no explanation about how that information will help her to place you.

And that’s the key point about any questions recruiters ask: How will that help you place me? That’s a perfectly professional way to challenge them without being confrontational.

I wouldn’t bother bringing it up again because it will serve no purpose. If she asks another such question, that’s when you should state your position. (Here’s a batch of interview questions that are illegal.)

What’s she look like?

As a headhunter, I’ve encountered questions that have been surprising. Some were questions clients asked me; others were questions employers asked job candidates. Here are some examples.

A new client asked about a candidate I had presented: “We looked her up on LinkedIn but her profile has no photo. Can you have her add her photo?”

When I inquired about the reason they wanted to see a photo, they said they just wanted to get a look at her. I fired the client. A photo and what she looked like were irrelevant. (Then there’s this stupid interview question to ask a woman.)

Man to man?

After two rounds of interviews went very well, the HR recruiter wanted to discuss the Quality Assurance Engineer I sent him.

“Is he, uh, you know?”

“No, I don’t know,” I responded. “Is he what?”

“You must have noticed. You know. How do I put this. The other guys on the team here prefer to work with, you know, a man’s man.”

“A what?”

“You know, doesn’t the guy seem effeminate to you?”

Oh, I suddenly knew. His company missed out on a great Q.A. engineer that day, and I fired the client.

Can you steal?

A senior executive came to me for coaching while she navigated a complex interviewing process at a company she really wanted to work for. The company was a direct competitor of her current employer. At the second interview they asked her to bring certain materials to her third interview: her current company’s price lists for customers the new company competed for.

She felt she had no choice but was worried about the ethical problem. I told her not to do it. She was relieved because she agreed. I suggested she tell them she would no more reveal her current employer’s confidential data than she would reveal the new company’s data to her next employer. To her surprise, they hired her anyway and never brought up the subject again.

I’ve got more: The high-tech employer that wanted to know “What kind of accent is that?”  The retailer who wanted a new HR executive but only females need apply. I’ll close with these two really insulting interview questions. Now let’s hear yours.

What inappropriate questions have recruiters and employers asked you? How did you handle it? What questions have you answered that you wish you hadn’t? What was the outcome?

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32 Comments
  1. The worst interview question I ever ran into was one I asked myself: “So when this big project you are talking about is done, what are you doing next?”

    They went openly hostile after that. Didn’t get the job, but learned in about a minute that I didn’t want the job because they were staffing up for a short term project and the real answer to my question was “after this project is done, we’re laying everyone off.”

    • @J: I love that question. I call what they’re doing “throwing bodies at a problem.” It’s not hiring. It’s what is now called “staffing.” My guess is this was a contract gig through a staffing firm?

  2. The reasoning behind the familiy questions is probably that the recruiter assumes the candidate will prefer to live and work close to family – and later to move to take care of elderly parents. Hence, placing the candidate somewhere else means the candidate will leave, sooner or later.

    Which is true; most employees leave sooner or later for a lot of reasons, professional or personal, including family.

    It is similar to asking women if they plan to get pregnant, because that may affect work. Never mind that pregnancy and kids are a very normal part of life, as are taking care of family. Seems these recruiters want candidates who are not impacted by actual life.

    Companies seem to want fire-at-will, but question loyalty if candidates states the obvious, they may leave one day, because, well, life happens.

    • @Karsten

      “Companies seem to want fire-at-will, but question loyalty if candidates states the obvious, they may leave one day, because, well, life happens.”

      I’ll probably butcher this, but I’ve once read/heard a good argument that “loyalty” isn’t necessarily a personal trait someone has. Or that it’s mistaken for something else, like being passive. In other words, many people want to play psychologist, but have no real understanding of the complexities of the topic.

      • @David: When HR plays psychologist with you, run.

        For example, when HR rejects (or terminates) older workers because “they’re looking forward to retirement and are likely to leave soon anyway,” what HR is really saying is, “Our company won’t be able to challenge or pay you enough so you’ll want to stay.”

        But they can’t tell you that. It’s easier to play psychologist.

        • So by logical extension ..

          We know most “personality profiles” required with application are probably unethical at best ..

          But, are these actually legal in the first place?

          The biggest offender of this is the US govt / contractors .. (Yeah, even Best Buy!)

          Since when are these even qualified to conduct such “profiles.’

          A true “profile” is very expensive ..

          I have gone through a SSBI at one time to obtain a TS/SCI ..

          But now it seems EVERYONE has to go through some sort of clearance check (not just a criminal background) ..

          So we are ALL potential Marine recruits now?

    • I prefer conversations instead of interviews. As such the candidates provide that information while we have a chat.

      And I confess, I’ve sinned asking what spouses do, when I’m talking with someone who’s recently relo’d into my area. Just because if applicable, I might be able to help/place the spouse as well.

      • If you tell the candidate openly that that’s *why* you’re asking the question, it’s not so terrible. The reason the question is normally a problem is because there are a great many bad reasons for wanting to know and very few good ones. Yours is, if offered openly so that the candidate (and spouse) can accept or decline the offer by their own choice, one of the few good ones. But it does need to be done openly.

        Saying, “Oh, you and your family are new in the area? What field is your spouse in? I would love to talk with them if they’re looking for work here and happen to be in a field I represent,” is an offer to the spouse, not a way to sneak information in case you might later be interested in making an offer. It puts your cards on the table, and it also makes it easily possible for the current candidate to sidestep comfortably: “Oh, they aren’t looking right now, but thanks,” or “Oh, they’re in a totally different kind of work, but thanks anyway.” So it makes it a lot less uncomfortable to hear it that way.

  3. Not necessarily from a recruiter, but a company asked to interview me for a pharmaceutical development position, and they knew I had worked with a very similar product in a prior position.

    From the first of four interviews, culminating with the CEO, they all came in with notepads, did not ask me a single other question about my experience or duties and deflected all my questions about their company. They simply peppered me with detailed questions on how I managed the development of the other drug, and took obvious detailed verbatim notes. When I obviously gave them only generalities, mentioned that the information was confidential, and made the comment to the CEO that they would need to hire me to get the my full experience as an asset- yup, ghosted after the interviews terminated.

    • @Hank,
      I’ve faced the same scenarios as did you, going into interviews with good faith intentions, and with the full understanding that they were hiring for a legitimate position, only to be “pimped and simped” with attempts at free consulting. I’ve also encountered quid pro quo, where I would need to give the (sleazy) prospective employer a set number of sales leads in order for the interview process to move forward (true story).
      Your account, and how you aptly handled it, as well as the consequences (interview abruptly ended, then ghosted), should come as no big surprise, and should be a crystal clear warning to the “rainbows and puppy dogs” posters on here who ascribe to the false view that said employers are noble, or have their backs and best interests at heart.

    • As an agency recruiter I placed a guy as a Sr Project Manager with a client…because he offered up a real PPT he put together in one of his previous lives. Very well done. It wasn’t of a nature that revealed any IP, just a project manager type of thing/status which was sanitized (removing company ID) and he presented it, to the recruiter and management. As if he worked there. He talked shop via death by PPT. They were very impressed.

      So I thought that could be a good idea, right up until it wasn’t. I submitted a guy to a software company. He went, I debriefed him. It seems the hiring manager talked to him, and sent him forth to put together a presentation…a PPT containing his ideas on apps or some such relevant to his biz. OK, been there done that. And I sent another guy over. Who reported the same thing. The 1st guy, who was a friend by the way, via the grapevine knew another person who interviewed there. No one heard back, nor did I. Based on talking to them, and some other recruiters it soon became clear this guy had no intention of hiring anyone. He was using the lure of a job to pick up free consulting. Easily denied, but that’s what was going on. So we fired him as a client.

    • I interviewed for a position when a cut back was happening at my company (and I was told it was possible that our department would be cut by half). A competitor came to town to interview staff from our company at that time (they were hiring and expanding). They booked me for an interview – and started to ask me for confidential information about a project on my resume. I refused, saying it was proprietary (it was). When they would not stop asking me questions about proprietary stuff after I said I would not discuss it, I got a bad feeling about working for the other company and ended the interview myself.

      A friend of mine, who had left the company I still worked for (I was not terminated with the layoffs) to work for the new company later told me the only reason they interviewed me was to find out the facts of the project I had worked on (I had claimed the result on my resume). T

      • I worked for computer companies, where protection of IP bordered paranoia. Non disclosures for interviews, non dis closures while there and they covered X period after departure. It was SOP &
        cultural.
        They were all hard ball players. When interviewing we just didn’t go there. I mean the legal devils lie in the detail and everyone knew intuitively where the line was. General understanding of roles, responsibilities, and project area was fine..but you just didn’t dive down. Not only that if an applicant started down that path, they’d be cut off at the pass. and told don’t go there. The self discipline worked well. I can’t say what went on in informal discussions. And at the working level there’s a fine line between some company’s IP and the applicable experience. e.g here’s what we did at company X. and “I’ve tried that, it doesn’t work”

  4. @Nick I think the question “What kind of accent is that?” is not necessarily a bad one; it depends on context. I ask similar questions myself but it is out of genuine interest. I usually try to guess. It has been my experience that if you can pinpoint an accent to “Caribbean Islands, not Jamaica, not Trinidad… maybe Barbados?” or “west Africa, French speaking, maybe Ivory Coast?” or “central/east Europe, not Hungary, maybe Romania?” it can really open up a discussion even if you get it wrong.
    Our CEO (who often lacks tact) will ask the question point-blank. Again, it’s from genuine interest. I present as evidence our weekly company-wide Zoom meetings. People are connected in from USA (3 or 4 different states), South Africa, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand. Those in the US have accents from Central and South America, India, Polynesian Islands, and probably a few others that I’m forgetting.

    • @Eric: I’m sure some ask the question because they’re sincerely interested or even fascinated. But for many, it’s code for “What’s their race” or “What’s their nationality” because the employer has a bias.

      With older job candidates, employers can’t come out and ask their age, so when the clever applicant omits certain dates from their resume, the employer asks for dates of graduation so they can estimate “how energetic and contemporary” they are.

    • Absolutely GUARANTEE that in today’s work environment, Zoom or no, if you EVER asked that question in earshot of others the snowflake culture will immediately report you to HR, which will of course convict you of violating Title IX or even their workplace harassment policies – if you are lucky, you will be only given a reprimand or ‘sensitivity training;” more likely you will get a PIP.

      • If you’re an older white male, you’d be shown no quarter. No sensitivity training, no PIP, you’d be shown the door!
        A few years back, I worked for my now employer’s competitor. They had a progressive leaning HR department comprised of three matronly old hippie women. The workers referred to them as the “unholy trinity”, the “coven”, and other names I can’t mention in polite company.
        One day, myself, and a group of about 50 blue collar men, were called into a benefits meeting involving changes in our health insurance. Most of the men were supporting families. We had to be subjugated to a lengthy rant on how vile men were. Nothing to do with our health insurance. The senior HR woman boldly stated “the easiest worker to get rid of is a white male, especially an older white male”! Enough said.

      • That’s one of the advantages of working for a smallish privately-held company. Even though global, the company has fewer than 125 employees. No worries at all about an HR power grab. Just one look around the room (or Zoom call) in any meeting of any department in the organization would completely dispel any myth that there could be any bias for or against any variation of skin pigment or nationality. Performance is all that matters around the company.

  5. “You are never obliged to answer any questions that make you feel uncomfortable”.
    Spot on right! Nor are you obliged to continue the interview and their “poop tests” to determine your potential loyalty, or whatever other inappropriate, degrading, or even illegal lines of questions are thrown at you. There’s no victims, just participants. The question then begs, will you step up to the plate, call out aberrant behavior like this, and then walk?
    This lady doesn’t sound like she’s desperate for a job (been there, done that). But when a hidden agenda with questioning eluding to loyalty (code word for “if you come onboard, we own you”. Btw, loyalty is a “two way street”) pops up immediately in some time wasting “meet-and-greet”, that’s a red flag in your face.
    To quote a poster who occasionally pops up on this site (Paul Forel) “respect is where you find it”.

  6. About 26 years ago during the first interview at a small private engineering college in New Jersey I was in the HR director’s office, and he was asking a few general questions before I met with the Dean of Students, who was the supervisor. After a few minutes the HR director looked at me and said, “How tall are you?” (I’m a man, and not tall). Surprised, I laughed and said, why is there a height requirement for this job? He said no, there was someone else who worked at the college who was my size, and he was just wondering. The Dean entered a few minutes later, and he rambled on about nothing for a while, didn’t even ask me any interview questions. I left, didn’t bother writing a thank you note, as I wasn’t really interested in working for that dean. I told my father about the question I was asked, and he said not to say anything about it. I mentioned it to another friend who worked in HR and he said they would have given me 15k to walk away. I forgot about it afterwards and just kept going on other interviews in search of a better job than the one I had (colleges are lousy places to work, as an administrator) but now that I’m older if I could do it again I would have made an issue out of it somehow, if nothing else just to annoy this jerk who was the HR director. Although I had no proof, what he said wasn’t on tape, so he would have just denied that he had said it.

    • @Chris: That’s bizarre. I don’t understand any of this:

      1. Your father said not to say anything. What was he worried about?
      2. Your HR friend said they would have given you $15K to walk away. Why?
      3. What do you think the HR director was getting at with the question to begin with?

      • My father thought if I made an issue of it other colleges would find out about it, and I wouldn’t get hired anywhere else. (I doubt that would have happened).

        My friend said the college would have given me money to not make an issue out of it, because they wouldn’t have wanted it to become public.

        People have always doubted my abilities because of my height. The HR director only said what other people were probably thinking when they interviewed me. My height combined with my baby face made me look “young and inexperienced.” Actually a year after that I grew a beard because I thought it would make me look older, but I went on an interview at Rutgers and one of the staff I interviewed with said, you’re articulate and know your stuff, but I’m concerned that the students won’t take you seriously because you look young. If I was six foot five I doubt he would have felt that way.

        On the other hand, I’ve never been unemployed, and I’m 4 years from having 25 years with the state, being at a state university, so I’ll be able to retire and have the state health insurance, and then go do something else if I want to. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I had gotten jobs at private schools like Stevens.

        • @Chris: Thanks for sharing the details. I understand (1.) completely. And if your friend was right, (2.) is just outrageous.

          Your story about height gave me pause. “Not tall.” “Short.” Which one am I? When someone uses either term to describe me (I’m 5’6″), I roll my eyes, shake my head, give them an “Are you kidding?” smirk and tell them my 5’9″ girlfriend would say my feet never touched the ground. When the occasional passers-by gawked, she loved to give them a huge smile and a nod and lean into me!

          Like you and my dad, I always had a boyish face and have always looked younger than my years. My dad said to me, “Enjoy it. When you get older it’ll be a benefit!” He was right. I always used it to disarm.

          Early in my career I moved a VP of Engineering from southern Florida to a San Jose electronics company for a huge salary increase, company stock, a new house (the company paid all his moving and closing costs, and paid his mortgage the first 5 years). He brought his wife along on his second trip to shop for a house and I invited them them out to dinner.

          Waiting at the table, I saw them approaching and stood up. Hans was about 6’5″ and big bear of a man, old enough to be my father. We had become fast friends and we had a great working relationship. I’d never met his wife, who was easily 6′ tall. He greeted me very warmly and I noticed his wife’s mouth was hanging open and her eyes were wide with shock. “My dear, this is Nick!” Hans announced, quite proud of me.

          I was 25 and looked 19.

          “This is HIM?” she said, looking me up and down, clearly concerned for my health and welfare way down there beneath her. Embarrassed, Hans turned to her and said, “Yes. Him! The guy that moved me, you, our two teenaged kids and the dog to California, boosted our income dramatically, got us a house and now he’s treating us to a fine dinner! THIS is him!”

          I never think about how tall I am, especially when someone else does. Both feet can reach the ground, but I prefer to float above it all. If I ever had a thought about my height, my 5’9″ girlfriend fixed that long ago. So, where do you figure that HR director is nowadays? ;-)

          Keep on truckin’, Chris! The little people aren’t worth a thought!

          • Ha! I was about the same height. But I shrunk with age

            • Y’all are short. I’m so glad that I’m a towering 5 foot 7!

              Just kidding! Don’t sic HR on me! :-)

  7. I’ve been asked what nationality my last name is, but since I’m a white guy and native English speaker, it doesn’t really cost me anything to say what it is.

    Ironically, on the rare occasion when it’s asked, I sometimes get a “Oh, I can see that in your *insert appearance*” such as hair color or skin tone (I’m pretty pasty).

    Then I point out that I don’t have an ounce of that nationality in me as the name came from marriage a couple generations back, not blood.

    I take it as a general interest question because it can be hard to figure out its pronunciation (or they just want to know the origin), but again, there’s no harm, no foul for me because I’m white and lack a “foreign” accent. I would probably have more of a problem/concern with the question if I was otherwise.

  8. Hi Nick,
    Being a Software Dev for 30+ years and being quite comfortable in any given interview, I ask more questions of the company than they ask me. I’m actually interviewing (grilling!) the company more intensely than they are me. In my later work years, I’ve come to the realization that I would actually prefer an interviewer to ask me the so-called “illegal/unethical” questions. It tells me immediately the kind of company it is and the type of people that work there. By asking those questions, they are “weeding” themselves out of my pool of companies that I would work for and I don’t even have to lift a finger. There are basically interviewing themselves out of getting me as an employee. How great is that! So, from my perspective I don’t worry about these questions at all, they are of a great benefit to me as an interviewee.

    At a former company a project manager whom I worked closely with, who did a lot of interviewing, said that he prefers married people, family men, women with children, etc. because they won’t be “flakes” that quit when things get a bit uncomfortable (millennials??). They are much better employees. He actually would prefer to ask those questions so that he could hire more stable & reliable people.

    As always, thanks so much for your sage advice.

    Peter W.

    • @Peter: I learned that lesson early in my career. I had just gotten out of grad school. For two years I was on a stipend of $325/mo for teaching undergrads and doing research, no pay during the summer. That was my entire income. After my first interview at the first search firm I applied to for a job as an entry level headhunter, the owner of the firm had one last question: How much money do you need to live?

      I hauled myself up straight and said very proudly, “I can live on #3,250 a year!” (Can you top that?!) The owner said, “You fail. I’d never hire you. I want people who are hungry, who have a big mortgage to pay, college bills for their kids, wives that like to shop. Have a nice day!”

      • I’d punch the guy right there!

        Just for advocating the “debt system” ..

        On my way out, I would tell his secretary — “He insulted my wife?”

      • I never understood the desire to hire a candidate who had bills to pay. By that logic, you’d be head over heels for the guy with a gambling problem in hock to some loan sharks looking to break his legs if they don’t get their money.

        If such a person was successful, you’d then no longer have a stick to keep them in line. A successful sales person would eventually pay off the mortgage, get the kids out of college, and then quit because, hey, the bills are paid. What do you do? Fire that person and replace him with a guy fresh out of a college with a new mortgage? Explain to me how that makes your sales department successful.

        Anybody who knows a good sales person knows that this is not what drives them. Yes, they obviously want to make good money, but if you have a great sales person with a paid off house, a spouse that clips coupons, and no immediate bills to pay, that sales person will still be motivated because of the thrill of the hunt.

        I’d argue one should prefer a sales person with no financial worries because that person is so damn good at sales they make so much money they don’t have to worry about bills…..and if that person is wildly successful, that means your company is successful. It’s not rocket science.

  9. Ah what an interesting topic.

    *Picture this…my 1st recruiting (agency) job.
    *After years in big company corporate America,
    *Where as a manager had tons of HR classes, memos etc on
    question legality, harassment, toxic workplaces etc
    *Sitting across from one of the agency’s seasoned recruiters (yeah, old guy but experienced old guy)
    *Cubicles so one could hear peer calls if you didn’t block them out.
    * Within earshot of the agency manager
    * And I hear my peer ask a candidate. “Would you describe yourself”. She seemingly did and he reciprocated.
    * With my above background & embedded EEO conditioning, I about fell off my chair! My mental reaction was “Are you Shitting me!”
    I asked him about it on a break and he explained it was a favorite question, used it every time (he did). I don’t recall what his rationale was. (I NEVER tucked that away in my tool kit.
    I also was amazed that management seemed to have no problem with it. When I thought it was lawsuit waiting to happen.

  10. I was once asked If I want to get married because, If i wanted to, it would be difficult to combine marriage and working as a secretary! I still cannot believe I was asked this on 2020!

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