When Wangari Nyambura, 26, was undergoing orientation in her new role as a customer service representative at a beauty clinic and spa, her boss unexpectedly inquired about who was paying her rent.
The question, she says, was awkward and bordered on inappropriate.
“I was taken aback. I pondered what could have prompted such a question,” Ms Nyambura reflects.
She had already sensed elements of a toxic workplace and, therefore, chose to lie, disclosing that her father was paying her rent.
“Even though it wasn’t the truth, I sensed that she was trying to assess my ability to endure,” she says.
Hers is far from a unique situation; interviewees regularly face awkward questions during interviews, many of which unsettle them.
Timothy Ongaga, the Grants HR officer for the Kisii County Health Management Team, explains that questions are deemed awkward when they fall outside the scope of work and bear no relation to the job description.
“Questions that delve into personal spaces, career interruptions, individual reputation, previous performance, or implications can be inappropriate,” he surmises.
Nonetheless, Mr Ongaga says that often, such questions have the potential to disconcert candidates, leading them to lose confidence.
Such interviewees might feel they’ve been treated unjustly, which can, in turn, affect their perception of the panel members in the future.
“For example, if it’s a sensitive topic that makes them feel unstable, they might form a negative opinion about the interviewers.” he points out.
Why these questions are asked
Nelly Akungu, a human capital consultant, justifies these questions, asserting they are posed to glean more information about an interviewee.
They are designed to assess the temperament and personality of the interviewee. For instance, a question like, ‘What animal best represents you as a person?’
Explaining the rationale behind such a question, Ms Akungu states that an answer like “a lion” conveys boldness and fierceness, allowing the interviewer to draw parallels between the chosen animal and the candidate’s personality.
The questions are structured to evaluate an interviewee’s critical and analytical thinking skills.
“They enable interviewers to understand a candidate’s true characteristics. For example, the question, ‘If you were to play any type of song every day when you get home, which one would it be?’ can reveal one’s interests,” she elaborates.
Additionally, these questions aim to determine the environment in which an interviewee flourishes and whether they would be a cultural fit for the organisation.
“For example, if asked, ‘If you found yourself on an island and could bring three things, what would you bring?’ If a candidate says they would bring their phone, a charger, and AirPods for entertainment, it can signify to the interviewer that they prefer solitude,” Ms Akungu explains.
Conversely, she observes that if an interviewee says they would bring family members or colleagues, they are sociable and enjoy being with other people.
Ms Akungu points out that a question regarding one’s marital status could be intended to assess whether an applicant is suitable for a position, especially if the job requires extensive travel, late-night commitments, or early arrivals.
She suggests that such information could be relevant to understanding whether a candidate’s personal circumstances might impact their ability to fulfil the job requirements.
“These questions are important to make hiring decisions.”
Mr Ongaga emphasises that while awkward questions can help assess a candidate’s mettle, they can tarnish an organisation’s reputation if posed without tact.
“If the recruitment is for a management position, word tends to spread fast in this sector; thus, a poor experience can impair the corporate image or alter how prospective candidates perceive the company,” he elaborates.
Ms Akungu also suggests that a company might face legal repercussions if the questions posed during the interview slander the candidate.
Nevertheless, such unsettling questions can be avoided if the interview process is well-organised and objective. This allows the interviewer to maintain control and prevents unnecessary embarrassment.
“The recruiting team should be well guided and sensitised on the dos and don’ts for objectivity purposes.”
How to respond
Choosing not to answer is certainly an option, but how one articulates their refusal to answer is essential, says Mr Ongaga.
“For example, if one says, ‘With all due respect, I am not comfortable discussing that matter,’ the interviewer should respect this.”
Such a response indicates the candidate’s self-awareness and knowledge of their boundaries, which they are unwilling to let be violated, especially by people they are not intimately acquainted with.
Ms Akungu advises that when faced with such inquiries, interviewees should aim to remain composed and genuine.
“Realise that these questions are designed to reveal aspects of your personality that might not have been uncovered during the competency-based portions of the interview,” she explains.
When and how to ask
Mr Ongaga emphasises that soliciting candidates’ opinions on specific topics is a more effective way to understand their viewpoints than asking direct, blunt questions.
“For example, asking, ‘What is your view on the importance of declaring your marital status on official documents?’ is preferable,” he suggests.
However, he warns that such inquiries should maintain objectivity and shouldn’t be asked merely to satisfy the curiosity of the panellists.
For example, it’s reasonable if a company supports marriage-related activities or supports families. If someone states they can’t relocate due to family reasons, it’s a valid reason.
“Thus, responding to a question about one’s marital status can aid interviewers in understanding the candidate better.”