The perfect response to a very personal interview question

BY Nick Corcodilos  June 3, 2014 at 11:19 AM EDT
If an interviewer asks what your spouse does for a living, it's good to have a clever retort. But what does that question really mean?

If an interviewer asks you what your spouse does for a living, it’s good to have a clever retort. But what does that question really mean? Photo by Flickr user bpsusf

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered more than 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Question: I am looking for a job that is a greater challenge and I’ve been making the rounds with the recruiters in my industry. So far, of three male recruiters and three male interviewers I have spoken with, each has asked me what my husband does for a living. Why does this matter? If only one guy asked me that, I would shrug it off but every one of these guys asked the same question.

For what it’s worth, my husband is a software developer and I have answered the question every time. If I am asked the question again, what’s the best way to avoid it without sounding defensive?

Nick Corcodilos: Try this: “My husband wouldn’t be interested in this position, but thanks for asking. What does your wife do?”

In general, I think “turnabout is fair play” is a good rule when you need to judge the legitimacy of an interview question. That is, an interviewer shouldn’t ask any questions he’s not willing to answer himself. (Of course, this would apply to women interviewers, too.)

If the retort I’ve suggested seems extreme, it’s based on the same logic I apply to the salary question. (See “Should I disclose my salary history?”) If an employer has a right to information about your salary history, then you have a right to salary history relating to the position at hand. That is, what does the company pay others who do that job, and what has it paid over the past few years? Likewise, if Mr. Interviewer wants to know what your husband does, he won’t mind telling you what his wife does for a living.

My rule is, always look at the business angle first. So before we get into sexist interviewers and discrimination, let’s look at another aspect of this: What does your answer gain the interviewer?

Two things. One, it tells him how much of a financial cushion you have, because that could influence the level of salary a recruiter will try to get you, and the kind of offer a manager might make. Two, it helps him assess whether you’re likely to quit if your spouse gets a new job. (In other words, whose career comes first?) By itself, there’s nothing onerous about this; it’s just an aggressive negotiating tactic. It doesn’t mean the guy’s discriminating. He could be a fine, upstanding fellow who is so focused on “the deal” that he misses the sexist connotation of his question.

And that’s why the retort I suggested is such a good one. A guy who meant nothing improper by it will blush beet red and retreat with an apology. He might still be a jerk, but he’s probably benign. He won’t be offended by your spiked response.

On the other hand, if the interviewer reacts with a nasty glare, you’ve just saved yourself from a complete waste of time. Guys who don’t know how to talk to women should interview inflatable dolls instead. You don’t need to know how to answer them. You need only recognize them so you can cross the street to avoid them. There’s no quarter in continuing an interview with a jerk. Your choice is to complain or sue for discrimination, or to walk away.

The retort we discussed is a good though admittedly aggressive test. If it leaves the interviewer embarrassed, this gives you an edge so you can find out what he’s really like. At this point, I suggest asking and answering what I think is the best interview question ever. (Click here.) If he gets offended, then he’s not worth talking to.

If we expect the people we work with to have high standards, we often have to insist on it. You’re not being defensive when the interviewer is being offensive; you’re going on offense yourself. Use your judgment, but stick to your guns.

Dear readers: What’s the most personal or inappropriate interview question you’ve been asked? How did you respond?


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

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