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Taboo Topics: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Say

TCrenshaw (2) Being stressed about job interviews (and let’s face it, in this age of joblessness, who wouldn’t get a little worked-up over an upcoming interview?) comes with its fair share of psychological afflictions. If you’ve been making the rounds at various interviews long enough, you may even start to have interview-related dreams or even nightmares. And that’s pretty rough.  Of course, it’s nothing compared to the sheer terror of seeing those nightmares become realities.

Here’s one that’s actually been happening more and more often, at least if the correspondence of various HR representatives is to be believed.

You sit down for a job interview, perhaps your last one after a grueling cycle. This is the job you are most eager to land, the position that excites you the most. And you feel like the interview has been going smoothly. Then, all of a sudden, a taboo topic emerges. For whatever reason, the interviewer steers the question toward politics. And you panic. Ducking out to the restroom would look bad, and feigning choking isn’t going to fool anyone. So what do you do?

Well, for starters, you should know that the interviewer really shouldn’t be asking this question. In fact, it’s wrong for any employer to discriminate based on political or religious beliefs. So if they ask you any direct and possibly contentious question about your deep-seated values, it could well be an illegal question, and you’re well within your rights to politely decline answering it. You should also know that, unless you are applying for a position as a political science professor, your political opinions are probably not relevant to the job, and the employer probably doesn’t really care what you think; rather, the interviewer is probably asking the question to gauge how you respond.

In other words: It’s about you and your character, not about the politics themselves. So if you do answer the question, think about what your answer is saying about you as a potential employee. Think first about the way in which you answer. Does it indicate a willingness to be honest but also eloquent and tactful? Does it show that you are able to be respectful to a superior without completely cowering to them? Does it demonstrate free thought, but not insubordination? And perhaps most importantly: Does it indicate that you are able to remain calm under pressure?  This actually might be what the interviewer is really looking for–not the answer itself, but your ability to offer it without breaking into a sweat or developing a sudden stutter.

As for the answer itself, simply consider what it might reveal about your own, personal values and how those values square with those of the company itself. Certain political stances might come across as being contemptuous of corporate America or of big business.  If you’re applying for a job at a big corporation, this is probably ill-advised. Likewise, taking a position that seems radical in a work environment that tends to emphasize a strong, unified corporate mindset is also a bad idea.

For example, earlier this year there was a big skirmish about unions, and the issue was hot enough that many HR representatives reported the topic arising in different job interview scenarios. This is a great example of a question that’s probably best to simply not answer.  It’s controversial, and it’s directly related to a business’ bottom line. The best response is going to be a tactful and eloquent one that doesn’t actually indicate what you truly believe: “I think unions can be a complicated matter,” or, “Unions are a mixed blessing.” You’ll probably want to think up a similar response for questions related to, say, business tax cuts or outsourcing.

More than anything else, it’s simply important to remain poised, even if the question feels like a bit of a sucker punch. Again, politicians are not the ones who are auditioning here–you are. So your top priority should be to make yourself look good. Respond to the question in a way that makes it clear you are thoughtful, respectful, and discerning.  And perhaps that you are ultimately less interested in politics than you are in performing your job to the very best of your abilities.


Terry Crenshaw is a writer for who has focused her attention on what political professionals and their advisors, such as Peter Orszag, have to say about current economic policy. Through her work, Terry hopes to develop the public’s understanding of how politics can influence the economy.


June 13, 2011 - Posted by | Guest Post, Interviewing 101

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