During the course of an employment interview it is not only possible, but in fact likely that a delicate or personal topic may arise. For both the interviewer and the job applicant, this can lead to some sensitive situations that must be handled tactfully.

Inappropriate questions or subjects during an interview can create more than just an awkward silence; they can lead to legal issues. For that reason it is incredibly important for interviewers and hiring managers to be able to recognize and deal with sensitive situations before real problems arise.

Potential problem areas to watch for include asking questions that could:

  • land an interviewer in an uncomfortable or legally sensitive situation, or
  • force applicants to feel that they need to lie.

For example, a question (or request) as innocent as “Tell me about yourself” could lead to a delicate situation. In a scenario from the online training course on Potentially Sensitive Interview Situations, based on Lila Kelly’s research, a human resource generalist shared this experience while interviewing an applicant: “When I asked the applicant to tell me about herself, she started talking about her husband and children. I wasn’t sure what to do.”

Had the interviewer framed the question differently, he could have avoided the sharing of overly personal information. For example, the interviewer could have asked instead, “Please give me a brief overview of your work experience related to this position.”

Even if interviewers do not ask for it, information that they do not, or should not, want to hear might be mentioned in an interview. Interviewers must be prepared to handle these situations and develop tactics to steer the interview in the right direction.

Some interviewers believe that the interview ends after all the interview questions are answered, and then they can be more informal with the applicant. But beware. Following is another example from the online training of a potentially awkward situation that was handled tactfully by the interview team.

Jerry, a kindergarten teacher who wore a wedding ring and is gay, was not shy about disclosing his partner’s gender when an interviewer inadvertently asked about his spouse.

“We had finished the interview format, and then were just visiting about what I was doing for the rest of the summer. Talking about traveling, and I said we were taking several trips. This was my first summer not working. One of the interviewers asked if my wife was also a teacher or how she happened to have off in the summer to travel. I said that my husband worked for the company for 15 years and had several weeks of vacation. So no, he wasn’t a teacher, but he still had vacation enough to travel. (Lila: And you said it that way?) Yeah, and it didn’t go around… No one fell off the chairs.”

In interview situations where personal information is requested, some applicants have felt they needed to give false information. Otherwise, if they respond as Jerry did, it could be unsettling for an un-expecting interviewer.

Interviewers must also be prepared for sensitive questions about diversity that applicants may ask. Some participants from Lila Kelly’s research said they would ask about the diversity policy at an organization or the demographics of the department in which they would be working. Learning about the diversity in an organization will be important to some applicants, and interviewers should be trained on how to respond to questions related to diversity. Perhaps then they could offer that information to all applicants, whether asked for or not.

As the baby boomers continue to leave the workforce, the qualified applicant pool becomes increasingly diverse. Hiring practices that have not changed for decades need to change. Interviewers and hiring managers need to have discussions around potential problems and culturally sensitive situations that could arise in employment interviews.

The examples used here are from Module Three of the online training series titled Integrating Diversity into Employment Interviewing, which covers this topic in detail. Based on research that includes diverse applicants’ perspectives, it addresses:

  • sensitive interview situations to help interviewers avoid discrimination, potential legal trouble and, to say the least, uncomfortable interview situations,
  • personal information that should not be discussed in interviews,
  • diversity-related questions that applicants may ask and appropriate responses for interviewers to provide, and
  • methods for interviewers to address the organization’s diversity and diversity initiatives during an interview.

By developing a culturally competent and skilled hiring team, organizations can create a more inclusive recruitment, interview and hiring process for all applicants.


Copyright © 2017 Lila Kelly Associates, LLC. Human resources and diversity consulting. Integrating Diversity into Recruiting, Interviewing, Hiring and Retention – Since 1992. Not to be reprinted without written permission from Lila Kelly. This article includes excerpts from Lila Kelly’s online training courses and books at diversityintegration.com. To stay up to date on all the latest from Lila Kelly Associates, subscribe to our newsletter.