“I respectfully decline to answer that question. It is, if not illegal to ask, rather inappropriate.”
Sitting in a job interview, growing more awkward and uncomfortable by the minute, I felt as though I was backed right into a corner.
Quite a long while ago, I applied for a job, was invited to an interview and circumstances in my life changed quite rapidly, and I needed to cancel the interview. I called to cancel well in advance of the scheduled interview time and offered no other explanations – because I don’t think you owe any explanation to a potential employer if you’re not planning to work there.
When circumstances changed dramatically again a few weeks later, I contacted the company again because I noticed that the job was still advertised and rescheduled the interview. I knew that it was probably a bit unorthodox of me – and if they did not want to give me a chance, they could have refused to reschedule the interview. No harm, no foul. But they seemed happy to give me a new opportunity, so I went to a series of interviews.
In the first interview, the hiring manager and the HR director were sitting across from me, and the HR person asked me why I had cancelled the first interview. Fair enough. I anticipated that they would ask me something like that. I replied only that my personal circumstances had changed, the issues that prevented me from attending the original interview were behind me and that the reasons behind all of it were private.
Somehow this was not a good enough explanation, and the HR guy grabbed onto this like a dog with a bone. Throughout the interview, even though I think I defused the question tactfully enough (in a way that should have shut the question down). The HR guy continued to poke and prod, even long after I thought the question had been answered and put to rest. It was as though it would suddenly pop back up again, and some nagging feeling in his gut would jump to his mouth, and he was physically unable to stop asking.
He started questioning my statement about “privacy”, claiming that it felt as though I was “keeping secrets”. But there is a big difference between privacy and secrecy. Which I stated at the time. The questioning escalated in offensiveness and discomfort, making me consider – in the moment – that I was not sure I wanted to work somewhere where an HR professional was so hell-bent on knowing personal information that had no bearing on my potential as an employee that he would veer into very uncomfortable territory to get it.
My workplace experience has mostly happened in the US where this kind of prodding would be dead wrong under any circumstances. Whole articles are written about illegal job interview questions. To be frank, I don’t know what is illegal versus just awkward in a Swedish workplace – but I would think that someone in a managerial role in human resources should have the tact and sensitivity to stop pushing when something is clearly not work-related.
The worst thing – when I was called in for follow-up interviews the next week, I assumed that the issue was settled. But no, the same HR person brought up the same pushy questions the next time, and then I felt really backed into a corner. I tried to remain tactful in conveying that I felt the question was answered as much as it was ever going to be. But his continued insistence felt like lighting the fuse on a time bomb.
Eventually I was hired and accepted the job despite these misgivings. This whole scene sort of plays into my feelings about HR in general – how is it that the one department that is meant to be the most in tune with people and the legalities of hiring could be the worst at dealing with people?