Ask LH: How Do I Deal With Interview Questions I’d Rather Not Answer?

Dear Lifehacker, I went on a job interview last week, and everything was going well until the hiring manager asked me details about my performance reviews at my previous jobs. I was pretty uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to lie, so I told the truth and explained that it had been a mixed bag. It was a pretty bad position. How do I politely avoid those kinds of uncomfortable questions in future interviews? Signed, Taken Aback

Title photo by StockLite (Shutterstock).

Dear Taken Aback,

It says a lot about you that you went ahead and answered her question honestly and didn’t resort to lying. First, congratulations on that. Now, when those types of questions come up, you do have some ways to tactfully and politely work your way out of them — and some other tools that aren’t so polite, but are still firm and keep you in the game. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Are the Questions Legal?

Before you go into an interview, make sure you’re familiar with the types of questions the interviewer is legally allowed to ask you. Anything directly related to the role or the function you’ll be performing is fine, but if the conversation strays into questions about your health, your religion, ethnicity, marital or family status, you have the right to simply not answer the question. There are guidelines around the questions an interviewer can or cannot ask, and even some loaded questions that interviewers should steer clear of as well. Even if they have good intentions, you have a few ways of dealing with these questions. First, if you think they really are being inappropriate, tell them outright. If they’re trying to pre-judge you, you may not want this job anyway. Let them know they can’t, for example, ask you if you’re planning on having children in the next six months to a year, or whether or not you’re active in a church on Sundays — even if the job you’re interviewing for may require some weekend work. Photo by Adam Gregor (Shutterstock).

If you want to be a bit more tactful, you can try to give them the answer they may need without directly answering the question. For example, if they ask you if you’re active in a church, you can say “If you’re asking whether or not I’ll be available for weekend work occasionally, the answer is yes”, (or no, whichever is appropriate for you.) This article at Excelle has a number of illegal questions that have been rephrased to be legal — questions you’ve probably heard before, and are OK with answering. You can use them to redirect any inappropriate questions you may be asked.

Turn the Question into One You Can Answer

In the same vein, if the question is perfectly legal, but just one that you’re not very comfortable with, this is where you have to learn the art of twisting the question. Figure out what it is the interviewer is really trying to find out, and answer with that instead. For example, if the interviewer asks about your previous performance reviews and how you scored, what they’re really getting at is what your previous managers’ perceptions of your performance were. Explain instead that every company does them differently, but your prior managers were all pleased with your performance. Photo by bpsusf.

Alternatively, if you’re uncomfortable be honest and let the interviewer know it. Ask what it is specifically they want to know, and let them know you’d be happy to address that specific question. Letting the interviewer know you’re uncomfortable will at least give them an explanation for any non-verbal anxiety they may observe from you. You can also take the direct approach and ask the interviewer directly how their question relates to the role you’re interviewing for. They should be able to answer in a way that clarifies what they want to know, and you can proceed from there.

Think Ahead, Answer Professionally, and Admit When You Don’t Know

Some of the most uncomfortable interview questions are the scripted ones that people are frequently asked, but never really prep their answers for. For example, the old “Why are you looking for a new job”, or “Why did you leave your last job”, can be a doozy, and you don’t want to flounder over it when it’s time to answer. Make sure you know what you’re going to say to that one before you walk in the door. The same applies to questions like “Don’t you think you’re overqualified for this role?” or “You’ve been unemployed for X, why has it taken you so long to find a new job?” If you’re on the spot and don’t have an answer in mind, you’re more likely to come off as defensive. Think of creative responses beforehand, like “I can see why you think that, but I’m looking for something new and interesting”, to the former, or “I decided after I was laid off that I’d be more selective about the jobs I applied and interviewed for” to the latter. Photo by Hilary Perkins.

Also keep in mind that you should never feel bad about saying you don’t know the answer to a question in an interview. You’re better off admitting it than trying to come up with an answer that will likely be incorrect (unless, of course, the goal of the question is for you to go through the motions of trying to solve a problem so the interviewer can see.) Explain that you don’t know, but you know where you’d look to find out, or repeat the question back while you try to figure out a response. Defuse the pressure, and you’ll also defuse your anxiety.

Yes, You Can Always Lie

We don’t advocate lying in a job interview, but it’s an incredibly tempting way out to a difficult or uncomfortable line of questioning that many of us have probably used. Plus, it’s inevitable that someone will say “just lie!” if you’ve been asked about past performance reviews, for example, and you know the interviewer will never get their hands on such sensitive documents. If the question really is inappropriate but you really want the job, there’s likely no way for the interviewer to know whether or not you’re lying, so you could be safe taking that route.

Make up a non-disclosure agreement or non-compete agreement with your previous company that forbids you from answering the question, or from divulging details, or tell them what you know they want to hear. Again, we don’t suggest it — lying has a bad habit of catching up to you, especially in the office, and once you’ve lied to an interviewer or hiring manager, you have to live up to that lie if you’re hired on. It’s a way out, but not a good one, especially if you can be clever and tactful instead. Photo by Yi Chen.

Hopefully we’ve given you a few tools to address those really uncomfortable interview questions. Remember to go in prepared — you need to know if the question your interviewer is asking is illegal or designed to eliminate you rather than give them valuable information about how you’ll perform in the job you’re interviewing for. Plus, being prepared goes a long way towards answering the worst kinds of questions. Be confident and ready for a little verbal sparring, and you’ll be fine.


PS What are some of your tactful and responsible ways of addressing interview questions that catch you off guard or that make you feel uncomfortable? Share your interview tips for Taken Aback in the comments below.

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