How to Play Left Field at Job Interviews

Brian Taylor

September 26, 2011

"I hear you're a Bahai. What's up with that?"

"No wedding ring, eh? You might want to talk to some of our single faculty about the local dating scene. Oh, wait, are you gay?"

"I knew your dissertation adviser. He was a jerk. What do you think of him?"

"The department is split on a lot of things. If you promise to ally with me, I'll push to hire you."

"You really would check the diversity box for our school. We need at least one minority for our accreditation standards."

Welcome to left field—the zany realm of irregular and unnerving queries and comments that job candidates have suffered during interviews. Some of those comments are illegal; many are unethical; all are inappropriate. Yet they still get said, all too often.

If, while interviewing for a job, you get a hard drive into left field, you have several options. You do have rights, and a campus human-resources officer can inform you of them, but filing grievances or lawsuits is outside the scope of this column. So let's consider your other options. How you respond will depend on the situation, the probable intentions of the guilty party, your own temperament, and your sense about whether any particular tactic would work.

Before any interview, make sure you mentally practice covering left field. Academic searches are conducted by people who fall onto a bell curve of efficiency and propriety. No human endeavor can be perfect. Even departments that firmly believe in trying to make searches as professional and humane as possible can stumble. And because you may meet dozens of faculty members, administrators, and graduate students during an average campus visit, your chances are high of being on the receiving end of an unfortunate utterance from one of them.

Still, most left-field intrusions are not deliberate attacks but derive from cluelessness, thoughtlessness, or even good intentions. The search chair who starts quizzing you about your parental status is proud of the great schools, playgrounds, and child-friendly events the town has to offer. Candidates see more pop-ups to left field than line drives.

So don't be surprised when it happens to you in an interview. In fact, not being surprised is a survival strategy. Planning what you might do makes you much more likely to react wisely than with emotion.

Ignore it. Sometimes the simplest expedient when you are asked a question that seems off kilter or unfair is to just let it slide by. I recall witnessing a Ph.D. candidate interviewing many years ago at a department in which I was an assistant professor. One of our own graduate students, at lunch, asked what I thought was an overly personal question about some of the faculty members at the candidate's home department.

The candidate responded with the slightest "That's not relevant" shrug and moved on smoothly to another topic. Her body language spoke volumes. Here was someone who knew when not to respond or make a fuss. I would have been sympathetic with her whatever her answer, but that she was not rattled by the unexpected query made her a stronger potential colleague.

Strike back. Searches can be amateurishly conducted because faculty members are essentially amateurs at the business of hiring. Certainly there are campus training workshops on the topic, and for major administrative openings, professional search firms oversee most of the process. But how many professors, let alone graduate students, have undergone truly rigorous tutoring in the laws, ethics, and good practices of hiring?

Seniority is not a guarantee of propriety, either. My HR informants tell me that it's senior faculty members who are most likely to ask inappropriate or illegal questions. Again, their intentions may be good—to help find the best fit for a candidate, to help the department hire the best person, to answer what are perceived as genuine human needs and interests. But the outcome can be a job candidate's feeling bemused and ambushed.

Your first instinct might be to hit back at an inappropriate utterance, especially if you think it was mean-spirited. A job candidate for a social-science position described getting some highly personal questions at his research presentation and letting loose a stern rebuke, along the lines of "What the heck does that have to do with my methods section?" Fortunately for the candidate, his persecutor was well hated in the department, and the counterstrike won over the majority.

Another job seeker, just before a campus visit, received an e-mail full of scurrilous accusations from a faculty member on the search committee. The candidate promptly sent the note off to another member of the committee, who passed it on to top administrators, who then profusely apologized to the candidate.

In many other cases, however, there are options other than aggression in word or deed.

Have fun with it. Left field can be the most entertaining place in the otherwise serious and fretful world of job hunting. Some improper comments or questions are genuinely funny, and the temptation to burst into laughter may be greater than the instinct for fight or flight.

A job candidate recalled a theater-of-the-absurd moment when, at a search-committee dinner, the talk turned to religion. One faculty member would not drop the subject. The candidate was honest: He was agnostic. His interrogator followed up by asking, "How do you practice that?" The candidate flippantly began to describe some elaborate rituals of worship—borrowed from a book he had read recently on the Aztecs. The questioner sat in rapt attention, but most of the rest of the table looked on in shared amusement.

Run with it. This may be a great opportunity to demonstrate your fielding skills. Say, for example, that you conduct your research presentation and, inevitably, Professor Pontiff asks a showoff question that is almost unconnected to your work and purely intended to demonstrate his own intellect. The temptation to counterattack here is not useful to you at all. That's probably the way the guy is, and once he assuages his own insecurity he may end up being your champion.

In this case, if you have heard of his research—and you should have, in the course of studying the department's faculty members—speculate briefly but brightly on how it might connect "in the future" with your own studies. Then move on. The other onlookers will give you points not only for constructive engagement but also for being able to return to the topic at hand. After all, one criterion on which they are judging you is the ability to get along with them—all of them.

Use it to your advantage. Turn a left-field question into a demonstration of your qualifications for the position. Here's a hypothetical: A young female Ph.D. is interviewing for a tenure-track job in physics when a senior male faculty member on the committee tells her that "serious women scientists don't have kids." He then pointedly asks the candidate whether she has children.

I would argue that riposting, "You old sexist idiot! What the hell are you talking about?" might be justified but won't advance your goal, which, after all, is employment. Chances are, most people in the room would recognize such a comment as offensive, so you would already have some allies (and if not, then you might not want to work there anyway).

One solution: Answer evenly that, yes, you have children, but then talk about how you've found the appropriate balance in work and home life and how your family understands the challenges of the tenure track. Segue into an example of your recent research accomplishments. Your calmness, confidence, and maturity will score you many points, perhaps even with your cranky inquisitor.

Write it off. Most left-field hits are singles—just one person firing off a wacky or problematic remark. Such isolated instances are easily dealt with by the tactics I've described.

But what happens when you encounter a culture of inappropriateness, even hostility? The indicators are not hard to spot. When an intrusive or offensive question is asked, can you read the room for sympathy, rolled eyes, or groans? Or does the addled inquisitor seem to be speaking for the mob?

Listen to the group's own interactions and see if you can detect a prevalence of defensiveness, passive-aggressive sarcasm, or just-under-the-surface malevolence. Such signs point to a department with serious internal issues and, worse, chomping to inflict their unhappiness on a newcomer. At that point, no job is worth it. Be polite, even gracious. On the airplane home enjoy a pleasant drink, chuckle, and toast your good luck at being so well prepared to be a left fielder.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the "P&T Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.