“I’m Sorry, What Did You Ask?”

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    Natina R. Gurley
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During an interview process, two student staff members took me to lunch. As we ate, one of the young interviewers curiously asked, “I gotta know, are you married?” They eagerly waited to hear about my handsome mate, white picket fence, and adorable little tax deductions (that I don’t have).

I did an internal *gasp* and *pearl clutch*! Was I just asked that? I felt pressured to say something, because I wanted everyone to have a positive experience with me. I was looking for a new position and I was really excited about the opportunity. I also wanted that medical, dental, vision, and pension!

For the purpose of our time here, we’ll agree on a couple of definitions:

  • Unprofessional Employers: While “unprofessional” can be subjective, let’s define it as an employer’s behaviors/actions/language not aligning with this, and—if you’re a housing professional—this one, too.
  • Unethical Questions: Questions related to protected classes, which include (not limited to): race, nationality, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, and/or ability. If it has no bearing on your ability to do the job or the institution’s mission, it’s inappropriate—and, probably, unethical.

So how do you manage unethical questions or unprofessional employers?




This is a great skill that can be honed and prepare you to answer an unethical question. The best way to redirect an interview question is to ask or answer a related question. Let’s say you’re asked (like I was) about your marital status. Great redirections include:

  • “Personal relationships have a huge impact on how we show up in our positions and can help to inform our philosophies of student development. From my personal relationships, I’ve learned that it is important for me to be authentic in my connection to others and encourage the development of healthy relationships among students.”
  • “Are there opportunities for significant others/partners/families to be invited to/engaged in the work that we do with our students?”

Sure, the answer to the question might be a question. However, it’s a much better conversation than attempting to decide whether or not to walk down that dark road. With redirection, you’re learning more about the position and institution. Sometimes, an unethical question is not intentionally asked, especially in the case of the aforementioned student; it can be a learning opportunity for them as well. You’ve spent some time mock interviewing for the right questions, right? Spend a little time practicing your redirecting skills for the wrong ones!


One of the ways in which we observe unprofessional behavior is during our informal conversations and interactions, because—let’s face it—you’re always interviewing. You’re at a social and you hear an employer tell an off-color joke or use a word that impacts a particular group. This can be a great opportunity to share something you’ve learned, or how you’ve grown in the field.

Let’s say you’re reframing a conversation in which offensive remarks were made about a cultural food offering, you might say…

“When I was an RA, I tried using chop sticks in the dining hall, which was effectively me stabbing my sushi. One of my residents took the time to show me how to properly use them and we had a great conversation about his family. I also learned that what I was doing was kind of offensive to him. I’m glad he felt comfortable sharing that with me. We get the opportunity to learn so much about each other and especially ourselves through cultural cuisine—and it’s delicious.” #ThisIsATrueStory

What better way to show how you advocate for voices potentially on the margins of the conversation, simply by reframing.


From my extensive unfounded (but peer-reviewed—because I asked my friend-colleagues) research, unprofessional behaviors and unethical questions are still a thing because of the lack of feedback. We believe in 360° feedback as a useful tool once hired, but rarely employ these tactics effectively during the recruitment process. Will you have an opportunity to give feedback during TPE Onsite? Sure. However, direct feedback given in real time will make the most meaningful impact. As I instruct my staff team: Tell Up, Not Out (to peers).

Let’s say you’ve had an interaction with an employer that asks you specific details from your other interviewing experiences or intentions moving forward:

  • To the Employer: (See Redirecting)
  • To the TPE Onsite Staff or Trusted Mentor: Find someone to have a conversation with. Share your intention to provide some specific feedback about your experience and the need for safe space in doing so. Give details about the interaction. Be open to questions and potentially being challenged. Remember, sometimes unprofessional behavior can be subjective. Enter and exit that space with the intention of making the process a good experience for everyone versus “getting someone in trouble” for something they may not have intended to do.

At the end of that aforementioned interview process, I shared with my host the “are you married” question. I really wanted the job, but felt so unsettled about that question; it bothered me the entire afternoon. My host told me that either this was an anomaly or that I was the only person who ever said something. She continued to remark about this being the first time ever receiving critical feedback about an interview process.

Regardless of the outcome, I was remembered for being the type of professional I wanted to be—one who owns their experiences and addresses concerns directly. The lesson here is this: the work we’re tasked to do—developing students—requires that we do this work in ourselves, and with each other. If we’re unwilling to hold ourselves and our colleagues accountable in every aspect of our work, the hypocrisy in our actions will manifest itself in other places—like our recruitment process. Our students take risks every day because of our interventions. I challenge and support you in doing the same.

And I didn’t get that job…I got a better one.

Interview unapologetically and unafraid! #YouGotThis


Natina R. Gurley is a social justice-minded housing professional and accidental residential life(r) at San José State University, furiously committed to educating and the cause of student development. She also likes all things purple and shoe sales. Find her tweeting @NatinaRenee.

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