Handling Strange Interview Questions

In this week's job searching tip, we address an inquiry from a subscriber about an interviewer asking strange questions. As we discuss in this tip, persuading an interviewer to hire you often requires taking the initiative to find out what their root concerns really are, even if their questions seem strange or even illegal on the surface.


In an interview I was asked about what year I graduated. Is this considered illegal since it probes someone's age indirectly?

Also, this may not specifically be a legal/illegal question: I was asked what my GPA was in school, which was 17 years ago. I asked why it would be
important to the position, but then answered it. The interviewer may or may have not been interested in determining my age, but the question seemed
pretty uesless. Recommendations on how to handle obtuse questions like this one?

- J.O.

Dear J.O.,

Yes I agree the question is unusual and quite possibly illegal. Of course reporting illegal questions to government authorities or threatening to sue potential employers probably isn't the best job searching strategy. But I'm not a lawyer so you shouldn't use what I have to say as a substitute for legal advice. You can also review the EEOC's guidelines regarding discriminatory practices on their web site at this address:

Some recruiters are unaware of employment laws and may not know that it is illegal to discriminate against older candidates.

Did you get the feeling your age would be a benefit or a liability in terms of persuading the person to hire you? I guess the ideal strategy for dealing with a situation like that would be to try to do what salespeople would call "value elicitation" to determine what the interviewer wants.

You could say something like "I did really well in school. In addition to having a solid GPA, I was involved in several extracurricular activities. My college experience has been very helpful in shaping my philosophies about work. It's interesting to contrast my experience in the real world with how I thought it would be before I graduated college. How do you feel about experience in relation to this position - are you looking for someone who has been out in the workforce and has gained perspective, or is the position more suited to a recent graduate?"

What I did with that response was I addressed the interviewer's purported concern about grades, and then went further to ask him if he's looking for someone right out of school or if he values experience. If the interviewer said they were looking for a recent graduate, the reason is probably that they want someone they can train and/or someone who doesn't want a lot of money. Of course you can ask more value elicitation questions to try to determine why the person is looking for the type of person they're looking for. The key here is to make sure your attitude is one of curiosity, not one of accusation or distrust. If you ask the question with a tone indicating you think the person's being unfair, you'll put them on the defensive and they'll be less likely to cooperate. Your tone should be similar to how a waiter would ask "Would you like fries or a baked potato?"

Once you determine the type of person the interviewer is looking for, you then need to decide for yourself whether you could fit in that position. If they're looking for someone they can pay a low salary to (like what they'd pay someone right out of school), you may decide to decline the offer. However, if you're not a recent grad but you're comfortable with taking a job that was designed for one, your next step becomes explaining to the interviewer how you would be a good fit for the job even though you're not a recent grad. You could talk about how you are open to new ideas/experiences, would love the challenge of learning something new, and that salary is not of utmost concern to you because you are very interested in working for their company (or something along those lines).

Another possibility if you determine that they're looking for someone who's different from you is to explain how your skillset and attributes would be a better fit than what they originally had in mind. For example, if they're looking for a recent grad to do an accounts receivable job, you could tell a story about how you worked at a company once where they hired a recent grad to do A/R and it didn't work. This puts you in the position of being a coach/advisor to the interviewer, and your perspective may be something they hadn't thought of.

One of the best ways to deal with strange interview questions is the same way you deal with all kinds of interview questions: preparation. The Job Search Handbook (www.jobsearchhandbook.com) has a chapter on interviewing which can help you come up with a strategy to prepare for your interviews.

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.