What I Learned From an Inappropriate Interview Question

A year and half ago, I was trying to figure out what I really wanted to do, career-wise.  I was about to start my final year of college, and as a marketing major, I knew the job field would be extremely competitive.  I needed to narrow down my options and focus my application efforts on jobs I thought I was both qualified for and  would enjoy.

For quite a long time, I considered real estate.  I love houses, and while sales in itself is very much not my thing, I think I am good at working with people one-on-one.  When I thought about that combined with my interest in homes, I thought real estate might be a good option.  So I started looking into it.

Real estate is interesting.  You don’t apply to be an agent.  Instead, what a lot of agencies do is have interested parties take a personality test that gauges whether your traits and work ethic will be a good fit for the field.  If your results are a good fit, the agency will bring you in for an interview, and then you must affiliate with a real estate broker, who promises to hire you once you’ve finished your state-mandated real estate education, and then you start your classes, which take around a year-ish.  Only once you’ve finished the classes, passed the test, and procured the license do you begin work and training with the agency.

I took the personality tests for several different agencies, and it turns out that according to those, I have a personality that is, in theory, very well suited for success in real estate.  This was encouraging, so I contacted a few agencies in my area, and was invited for a conversation/interview with a local one.  Nothing more came from that meeting, though they were somewhat casually looking for an intern, but I did learn a lot about the day-to-day work that would be required of an agent, and at the time, I was still interested.

This was all before my senior year started.  Near graduation, I was selected to interview for the position of Admin Assistant for an agent who worked under a well-known real estate company here in the US.  In my cover letter, I mentioned that I was interested in the industry and possibly in becoming an agent in the future, and that combined with the fact that I speak Spanish was what won them over.

So, I went in for the interview.  And here’s where the story gets weird.

I went in for the interview, like you do, and met the agent I would be working under.  The first thing she had me do was give an opinion on possible new logos they were working on.  That was fun, and it gave me a good impression of her.  She told me a bit about herself, most of which I already knew from the bio on her website, and I told her a bit about myself (most of which she probably already knew also).  She told me a bit about what would be required, asked whether I would be comfortable doing this or that, and explained that if hired, I would go with her on showings and such to get a feel for what was needed in client interactions and for basic industry knowledge.

This was all fine and good.  It sounded great — intense, yes, stressful, probably, but still good.  Then she asked me if I had kids or planned to get pregnant anytime soon.

That threw me off.  You know why?  Because that is not a question that should be asked in an interview.  Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination in hiring based on sex or pregnancy (among other things) is illegal.  Read this 2007 response from a member of the EEOC legal counsel on questions of this type in interviews for a clearer explanation of this specific issue.

While it threw me off in the interview, I couldn’t think of a professional response in the moment, so I answered the questions truthfully — I didn’t have children and wasn’t planning on it.  I said that I did not have any circumstances that would put constraints on my time.  She seemed satisfied with that, and told me she asked because real estate is a time-consuming profession.  I left the interview feeling like it went well, but with mixed emotions.

I wanted the job.  It was one of the few interviews I had where I was truly excited about the idea of working there.  It sounded like it would be interesting, and like I would learn a lot.  But her asking that question rubbed me the wrong way.  If she ignored or didn’t know just how inappropriate it was to ask that question, what else would she ignore?

I also started realizing just how much time I would be expected to put in in that position.  At the time, I had just gotten engaged.  We were planning on moving to a new city.  I knew I would need some time to myself to hang out with my soon-to-be husband, to work on my own hobbies, and to get settled.  But I had a feeling this particular agent really wanted someone who would be available to her 24/7.

I wanted to bring up the inappropriate question, but decided to wait until I knew whether I’d moved on from that interview.  It turned out, I had.  I found out the Friday night before graduation, when my fiance’s family had arrived for the ceremony the next day.  We were all out eating dinner together, and it was the first time I had met his aunt, uncle, and cousin.  During the dinner, I got a text from the agent, saying I was one of the top 3 choices and would I mind doing a brief phone interview with her colleague, who would also be working with me some?

This was good news, I thought.  I figured I would call the next day, in between the graduation ceremony and going out to eat with our families.  But then I got multiple calls and texts from both the agent and her colleague, urging me to call soon because they were trying to make the decision that night.

At that point, I was kind of pissed.  It was almost 7pm on a Friday night, the night before my graduation, which I know they knew because the exact date was on my resume.  I knew real estate agents worked weird hours, but I figured they would leave this kind of thing for normal office hours.  Apparently not.

Feeling very rude, I left the family dinner and sat in the lobby to call the colleague.  When I tried first, he didn’t even answer.  Then I got really pissed.  I tried to squash that, though, because I was still interested.  But at that moment I decided I would bring up my concerns to him, because if I didn’t say something now and ended up getting the job, when would I say it?

He called me back after about 10 minutes.  He asked me about my confidence in Spanish, because apparently he worked with a lot of Spanish-speaking clients.  Honestly, he sounded really nice.  But when I brought up my concerns about demands on my time, his tone changed a bit.  He made the joke that agents don’t get vacations.  At least, he said it was a joke — but honestly, I think there was a lot of truth in that.  And then I did point out that I was uncomfortable with the question the agent had asked about children.

The talk ended quickly after that.  And though I was told I’d get a call with the results, all I got was an email, several days later, from someone else’s assistant saying I wasn’t chosen.  Big surprise.

I was disappointed about the lost opportunity, of course.  It could have been an interesting job.  But I learned two very important things from that interview and opportunity.

  1. I don’t think real estate is for me, even though it seems super interesting.  I’m a person who values my free time, and if all agents are as intense and consumed with their work as the one I interviewed with, that’s not a lifestyle I want.  I’m not willing to give up time with my husband, or my own free time to pursue hobbies, for real estate sales.  If I could be an agent with regular hours, I would continue pursuing it.  But I don’t think that’s possible.  That interview helped me make that decision, even if it was a bit of a bitter decision.
  2. I would rather bring up a concern, especially in a job situation, than hide it and let things get worse.  I acknowledge that I probably should have brought it up in the moment that I was uncomfortable with the question, but earlier on in my life I wouldn’t have brought it up at all.  If me bringing that up, if me being bothered by that, was the thing that cost me the job, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed working under those two anyway.

The feminist in me still gets heated when I think about that interview and how inappropriate it truly was.  But all I can do is learn from it, and talking about it is therapeutic, too.  Do you have an interview horror story to share?

12 comments

  1. I assure you that you were right in the fact that the question asked of you was inappropriate and possibly illegal. I have not had anyone ask me questions like that but while I was interviewing someone they seemed very interested in how much money I made as I would be their supervisor! Kind of put me off them!

  2. I can’t believe you were asked that question in a job interview! Good for you for speaking up… often in the situation we are so consumed with not rocking the boat or causing an issue when really it’s the inappropriate behaviour/comments/questions from others that have created the issue in the first place! You might be interested in giving my post – it’s not minor if the effects are major – a wee read!

  3. It is so insane that employers don’t care how THEY come off as. They see you as the little guy just trying to get a job, who is at their mercy. The respect has to go both ways.
    It was not meant to be. You’ll find something better.

  4. I’ve thankfully never had any inappropriate questions like that in an interview but I feel things would go very badly if I was asked – I’d probably immediately be on the attack because I do get quite bad about things like that.

    • But it’s understandable why you didn’t – I think the first time your faced with a question like that in an interview it can be a bit of a shock and you don’t have much time to compose yourself for an appropriate response. If faced with it again I’d imagine you’d be more prepared to say something but hopefully you won’t actually have to face something like that again!

  5. They are basically saying they wouldn’t hire anyone with kids, or who plans to have kids. It doesn’t sound like a particularly good place to work…I don’t think you missed out. :)

    I’ve had a few inappropriate questions like this in interviews before too. :(
    To be fair I’ve seen even worse behaviour when I’ve got the job and been working with some managers. I really, really hope it’ll improve and the generation after us won’t have to put up with this kind of bull****

    • Exactly! And that doesn’t make any sense given that the agent herself had two young kids. She had that in her bio on her website. And I think this stuff will always be around, but maybe we can try to lessen how often it occurs.

  6. Well the truth of the matter is that as an Admin Assistant, you can work 40 hours. Period. After that it’s overtime and you must get paid time and a half. Those realtors could use some brushing up on HR laws. I think you’re lucky you didn’t get the job.

  7. Oh my gosh! What a story! That is so utterly inappropriate. Obviously, you had some really important and valuable take-aways from the situation, but that does not excuse it. I, too, value my personal life and time with my loved ones. I always say, I work to live, I don’t live to work! But, it was something I didn’t realize until I was a couple years into my career.

    • Right?? I wish she would have just come out and said what she actually expected, instead of assuming someone with children wouldn’t be able to make the time commitment. Takes all kinds, I guess.

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