In the September 9, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job seeker wonders why male interviewers ask about her spouse:
I am looking for a job that is a greater challenge and I’ve been making the rounds with the recruiters in my industry. So far, of three male recruiters and three male interviewers I have spoken with, each has asked me what my husband does for a living. Why does this matter? If only one guy asked me that, I would shrug it off but every one of these guys asked the same question.
For what it’s worth, my husband is a software developer and I have answered the question every time. If I am asked the question again, what’s the best way to avoid it without sounding defensive?
Try this: “My husband wouldn’t be interested in this position, but thanks for asking. What does your wife do?”
In general, I think “turnabout is fair play” is a good rule when you need to judge the legitimacy of an interview question. That is, an interviewer shouldn’t ask any questions he’s not willing to answer himself. (Of course, this would apply to women interviewers, too.)
If the retort I’ve suggested seems extreme, it’s based on the same logic I apply to the salary question. (See Should I disclose my salary history?) If an employer has a right to information about your salary history, then you have a right to salary history relating to the position at hand. That is, what does the company pay others who do that job, and what has it paid over the past few years? Likewise, if Mr. Interviewer wants to know what your husband does, he won’t mind telling you what his wife does for a living.
My rule is, always look at the business angle first. So before we get into sexist interviewers and discrimination, let’s look at another aspect of this: What does your answer gain the interviewer?
Two things. First, it tells him how much of a financial cushion you have, because that could influence the level of salary a recruiter will try to get you, and the kind of offer a manager might make.
Second, it helps him assess whether you’re likely to quit if your spouse gets a new job. (In other words, whose career comes first?) By itself, there’s nothing onerous about this; it’s just an aggressive negotiating tactic. It doesn’t mean the interviewer is discriminating. He could be a fine, upstanding fellow who is so focused on “the deal” that he misses the sexist connotation of his question.
And that’s why the retort I suggested is such a good one. A guy who meant nothing improper by it will blush beet red and retreat with an apology. He might still be a jerk, but he’s probably benign. He won’t be offended by your spiked response.
On the other hand, if the interviewer reacts with a nasty glare, you’ve just saved yourself from a complete waste of time. Guys who don’t know how to talk to women should interview inflatable dolls instead. You don’t need to know how to answer them. You need only recognize them so you can cross the street to avoid them. There’s no quarter in continuing an interview with a jerk. Your choice is to complain or sue for discrimination, or to walk away.
The retort we discussed is a good though admittedly aggressive test. If it leaves the interviewer embarrassed, this gives you an edge so you can find out what he’s really like. At this point, I suggest asking and answering what I think is the best interview question ever. If he gets offended, then he’s not worth talking to.
If we expect the people we work with to have high standards, we often have to insist on it. You’re not being defensive when the interviewer is being offensive; you’re going on offense yourself. If these questions were asked innocently and in passing, I don’t think your antennae would be picking up signals that concern you. I see no legitimate reason for asking the question, unless the interviewer explicitly prefaces the question with the reason. Use your judgment, but stick to your guns.
(To learn more about situations where you might have to assert yourself, see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers.)
What’s the most personal or inappropriate interview question you’ve been asked? How did you respond?