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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 | Leave a comment

Interviewing Your Interviewer: Asking Good Questions

I’ve talked about asking the right questions in interviews before.  It’s an important topic.  Especially when you consider it’s towards the end of the interview–part of the lasting impression you’ll make after you’ve worked out of the office. 

If you have a recruiter involved (or even an HR representative at the company), asking the wrong questions of the hiring manager could be squandering a great opportunity to shine.  Read more about this in my latest article for

Article:  Interview Success: Asking the Right Questions


Related articles:

What Not to Ask Your Interviewer

Successful Interviewing- Part 5 – Asking the Right Questions the Right Way

June 7, 2011 Posted by | Interviewing 101, article, Working with Recruiters | Leave a comment

Are You Going to Eat That? The Lunch Interview Challenge.

ribs I’m not a big fan of the breakfast or lunch interview. Perhaps for an all-day, meet-tons-of-people type of interview, a meal might serve as a nice break from the standard format. However, I’ve been witness to many interviews where the only meeting is at a dining table. Why am I not a fan of the mealtime interview? A simple rule my mom taught me years ago: Don’t talk with your mouth full.

I’m sure you can provide your own tips for interviewing while eating.  Feel free to add comments to add to my list of tips on lunch or breakfast interviews.

Article:  Are You Going to Eat That … During an Interview? How to Handle a Lunch Interview

March 29, 2011 Posted by | AOL article, Interviewing 101 | 1 Comment

Are You Positive You Want This Job?

Have you noticed I’m on a little bit of a rant lately with my posts about job seekers.  I absolutely hate to pick on them as their job is so difficult and I don’t expect them to be experts.  After all, if they were experts at job searching and interviewing, that would imply they do it often (not a good indicator of a loyal employee).

But, some recent events have prompted me to identify more pitfalls job seekers fall into.  Practically on a daily basis from my perspective.  If you are applying for jobs, talking with recruiters, or interviewing, please read my latest article for AOL.

Article:  Are You Sure You Want This Job?

March 2, 2011 Posted by | AOL article, General Musings, Interviewing 101, Job Search, Working with Recruiters | Leave a comment

Confidence to the Edge of Cockiness

Time and time again, I remind job seekers that your attitude in the interview can make or break your chances of getting the job. Keep in mind though that, “attitude” covers a lot of ground. Job seekers are reminded to keep a positive demeanor on interviews.  Attitude also encompasses projecting an air of confidence during interviews.  However, there can be a danger if it borders on cockiness. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some are not comfortable with listing their accomplishments as it sounds like bragging.

Managing this gray area of an interview can be tricky. But if simple guidelines are followed, you don’t have to worry about taking it too far.

Article:  Interview Confidence to the Edge of Cockiness

February 16, 2011 Posted by | AOL article, Interviewing 101, Personal Branding | Leave a comment

You’re Only Human … and So Are Interviewers

You likely have heard that interviewing is like dating. Or interviewing is a complex dance with lots of steps. The translation: Interviewing is a unique conversation where there seem to be many rules and traps that could lead to failure. You can interview almost perfectly and still not get the job. So this prompts the question:  If I’m a superstar on paper and meet all the requirements, why didn’t they hire me?  Perhaps, it was the other major requirement:  Because the boss has to LIKE you.

Read more on this reality in interviewing in my latest article for AOL:

Article:  You’re Only Human … and so Are Interviewers

January 31, 2011 Posted by | AOL article, General Musings, Interviewing 101, Job Search | Leave a comment

Panel Interviews: They’re Better Than You Might Think

It seems whenever I set up a panel interview for a job seeker, he or she groans, “Not a panel interview! I’d rather meet each interviewer one-on-one.” Many job seekers seem to have a fear of being interviewed by several people at once. In reality, panel interviews have many advantages. You actually may be better-suited for this style of interview.  Check out my article for AOL for more on this topic:

Article:  Panel Interviews: What’s Not to Like?

January 28, 2011 Posted by | AOL article, Interviewing 101 | Leave a comment

Fighting the "Unemployed Bias"

These days, it seems I’m often advising unemployed job seekers on how to approach having an unemployed stamp on their resume. Most employers realize that it hard to have a career path that doesn’t hit a bump in the road somewhere along the way, especially with the economy the way it is right now. The key to overcoming the bias associated with being unemployed is to paint your picture with the brightest colors possible.  Whether in interviews, resume submissions, or networking, there are key approaches to keep in mind.  My latest article for dives into this touchy subject.

Article:  Overcoming the Unemployed Bias

January 17, 2011 Posted by | Interviewing 101, Job Search, article, Resume Writing | Leave a comment

As Great As You Are….What Is Your Greatest Weakness?

One of my favorite oxymorons: “greatest weakness.”

When in an interview, your job is to present all your strengths, why you’re a great fit for the job, and how you could make an immediate impact to the company’s success. But often during the discussion, you’re asked about your faults, your skills lacking, your downside.  There are many ways to approach this where some work well and some don’t.  Take a look at my latest article for AOL for thoughts on this subject.

Article:  What Is Your Greatest Weakness?

January 10, 2011 Posted by | AOL article, Interviewing 101 | Leave a comment

What Not to Ask Your Interviewer

Recently I wrote an AOL article for job seekers on the types of questions to ask during an interview and I realized that I had hardly touched on the issue of “what not to ask”. As stated in my previous article, it’s essential that you ask questions in the preliminary interview that provide the hiring manager with insight into who you are. These questions should produce a thoughtful discussion, and not simple answers. If you are deemed a qualified candidate, you’ll have an opportunity later to ask procedural or compensation-related questions.

In this follow-up article is a list of questions that I recommend you do not ask in the first interview. Consider the more appropriate questions (and comments) I’ve provided.

Article:  What Not to Ask Your Interviewer

December 21, 2010 Posted by | AOL article, Interviewing 101 | 1 Comment