Dealing with Personality Interview Questions

QUESTION FROM A SUBSCRIBER:

I recently had an interview where the man asked me What 3 people living or dead would I have dinner with. Honestly I answered the question. From that he stated, "Oh, you're a democrat". Then he asked me what books I was reading, one I pointed out was a self help book, he asked "What kind of self help book?"
Are these questions legal?
- D.A.

Dear D.A.,

I'm not a lawyer so I can't give legal advice. But my understanding is that those interview questions would not in themselves be illegal. It is not legal to discriminate against someone when making a hiring decision on the basis of their membership in a protected class (such as race, sex, sexual orientation, age, etc.).

It is often difficult to prove such things, especially if it is an isolated incident and just your word against theirs. If you do feel you were discriminated against in an illegal way, you should consult an attorney and/or the EEOC (www.eeoc.gov). The EEOC will usually, at the minimum, let you file a complaint against the company. This way if they start to see an unusually high number of complaints against a particular firm, that may be considered evidence of unfair hiring practices.

All that being said, filing complaints against companies or suing them is not the best way to get offered a job. An interview is a selling situation. When going into an interview situation, it might be helpful for you to think of yourself as an agent for yourself. Remember the HBO show "Arliss"? Or Tom Cruise's character in "Jerry Maguire"? Jerry Maguire had to endure all sorts of off-color remarks and behavior in his efforts to sell his services. But he just rolled with the punches and kept focused on his goal of closing the sale, always.

The best answer to a personality-oriented question is the answer the interviewer would give themselves. Another option is to challenge or dismiss the question in a funny and/or witty way. This second option works best if you've already shown yourself to be a valuable person (such as through your knowledge of the work or industry). Showing the interviewer that you're in control of the situation and not overwhelmed by their question is often better than answering the question directly. In an interview or personal selling situation, you need to demonstrate two things: personality and value. For many technical positions, employers are willing to sacrifice personality for value. But in positions that require working with other people, demonstrating personality may be equally if not more important.

For example, on the books question, rather than answering the question directly, you might try to engage the interviewer in a conversation using their thought about books as a starting point, but transitioning to something you would prefer talking about. You could start off saying "You know, when I was a kid I loved those Hardy Boys mystery books. I've always enjoyed trying to solve mysteries whether they're in books or in an inefficient supply-chain system. At my last job, I was able to save the company over $10 million by discovering cost inefficiencies that had previously gone unnoticed.."

When you're in an interview, it's always best to get as much information as possible before giving any information yourself. You don't want to come across as evasive. But you have a much better chance of giving answers the person wants to hear if you know something about them, about the job, what they're looking for, etc.

The best course of action in interviews is to steer clear of topics that could stir up controversy, such as politics and religion. An interview is a selling situation, so you may have to tailor your responses for the occasion.

Here's another example for people you'd like to have lunch with: mentioning people like Frank Sinatra, Vincent Van Gogh and Leonardo Da Vinci would be better than mentioning people who are living today. Famous people who are currently living tend to be controversial. You're best off mentioning people who everyone likes or who people tend not to have strong negative feelings about.

About the Author

Scott Brown is the author of the Job Search Handbook (http://www.JobSearchHandbook.com). As editor of the HireSites.com weekly newsletter on job searching, Scott has written many articles on the subject. He wrote the Job Search Handbook to provide job seekers with a complete yet easy to use guide to finding a job effectively.