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Facing awkward job interview questions

By Katie McLaughlin, CNN
Some potential employers knowingly ask candidates bizarre questions too see how they react.
Some potential employers knowingly ask candidates bizarre questions too see how they react.
  • Certain topics interviewer cannot broach, but awkward questions may still be asked
  • You can always toss an awkward question back at the interviewer
  • You can also ignore the question by acknowledging it and quickly moving onto another subject
  • Remember that an interview is a two-way street. You're also deciding if you want them

(CNN) -- With the economy picking up and college graduation season upon us, job interviews are on the rise.

Those of you making the interview rounds may not realize that the law bars prospective employers from asking certain questions. All questions should be solely related to the job the candidate is applying for; but that doesn't guarantee you won't face inappropriate questions.

Before former Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant was drafted into the NFL last month to play for the Dallas Cowboys he was asked one such inappropriate question. During draft season, Miami Dolphins manager Jeff Ireland reportedly asked Bryant if his mother was a prostitute.

Ireland later apologized.

Bryant had stated during the pre-draft interview that his father was a pimp and that his mother worked for him. This prompted the prostitute query. Bryant's mother, Angela Bryant did serve 18 months in prison on a 1997 conviction of selling crack cocaine. She was arrested again last year on drug charges and is on 10 years probation.

According to Nigel Scott of the New York Times N.F.L. Blog, "some have defended the question as a necessary part of vetting prospective players, in whom teams invest huge sums of money."

While you won't likely be asked if your mother is a prostitute, Fortune Magazine and contributor Anne Fisher has some advice on handling yourself in a professional, courteous manner if you find yourself squirming.

"New college grads don't realize they [potential employers] are not allowed to ask anything about your health. Even if you walk in limping or on crutches," says Fisher. That extends into alcoholism as well. "You could walk into an interview drunk, talk about how you're always drunk, and legally they cannot use that information against you."

There are many state and federal anti-discrimination laws that bar questions about disability, age, race, marital status or religion.

Interview questions are less intrusive than they used to be, especially for women. Today, an interviewer may not inquire as to whether you have children. But women used to get asked about kids all the time by potential bosses who wondered if absence would be an issue.

Fisher points out that if you get asked about kids -- and if you do, indeed, have children -- be sure to mention that parenthood has not interfered with your career. Sometimes the interviewer makes an honest mistake and brings up kids as nothing more than idle chit-chat. Other times they're looking to find out how often you duck out at 3 p.m. to attend Little League games.

In her book, "Wall Street Women," Fisher recalled how in the 1970s, Goldman Sachs would ask female securities analyst job applicants if they would be willing to have an abortion to further their career at the firm.

Fisher also advises taking a page out of Miss Manners' book: If you are faced with an inappropriate question, smile politely and ask, "Why do you want to know?" According to Fisher, there's nothing wrong with throwing the question back at the interviewer by asking, "How is that relevant to this job?"

You could also ignore the question by acknowledging it and then moving onto something entirely different. Fisher suggests turning the tables and taking control of the interview by saying something like, "Hmmm... that's an interesting question, but what I was thinking about why I'd be great for this job..."

While established corporations have a set script they keep to when conducting interviews, smaller companies don't usually have a large, knowledgeable HR team. Sometimes the person conducting the interview will make an honest mistake and not realize they've asked an inappropriate question.

Some potential employers knowingly ask highly unusual questions solely to see how the person reacts under pressure. Microsoft is famous for it. According to the book "How would you move Mount Fuji?," interviewers ask applicants such puzzlers as: "How do they make M&Ms?" "Why are manhole covers round?" And "How much does all the ice in a hockey rink weigh?" Bill Gates' grueling approach apparently allows Microsoft to pluck brilliant creative thinkers from the candidate pool.

Age can sometimes be an issue, says Fisher, as some employers only want to hire recent college graduates because they work cheap and are tech savvy. Meanwhile other employers seek out more mature workers for their experience.

If you call the interviewer out on his or her inappropriateness, you could lose out. If you desperately want the job, you may have to swallow your pride and play along. Then again, if the question truly irks you, you may want to re-think whether you can handle that kind of environment on a daily basis.

"Employers have the upper hand and they know it," says Fisher. "Some of them are going to try to get away with things. No job is worth that."

Fisher also reminds candidates that an interview is a two-way street. "You are also deciding if you want them. The person interviewing you is representing the company. If their questions make you uncomfortable, think twice about whether you want to work there."