How to Answer Controversial Interview Questions

By Randy Wooden, Director, Professional Center by Goodwill, Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina

In preparing for an interview, it is smart to practice how you would address typical interview questions. But what if you’re thrown a question that you feel has nothing to do with your ability to perform the job?

Controversial questions are rare and can pose challenges if you’re caught off-guard.

Controversial questions often deal with topics in the news, whether centered around politics or hot-button social issues. These types of questions will typically begin with, “What do you think of…?”

A mid- to large-sized organization is likely to stick to a series of scripted questions. Some small organizations could be less formal and may present questions based on what they just heard listening to the news about a topic.

You have three main options for answering a potentially polarizing question:

1. Answer the question truthfully. If you do, you run the risk that the employer might screen you out, simply based on differing ideology. Is that a risk you want to take?

2. The other two options involve a similar beginning to your answer, but then differ at the end. For example, the common beginning to the answer: “That’s certainly a hot topic in the news and many people have strong views on it…”

  • You can finish this statement with, “I’m curious. How do you see it?” The downside here is that it invites further discussion on the topic.
  • A better way to finish this statement would be to say, “I respect the views of others. It’s my personal policy to separate my personal views from my working life. I hope you’ll understand.” Be prepared to ask a question to change the subject.

How you handle these rare but polarizing questions not only serves to deflect the question and focus on your skills to do the job, but it can also show the employer your ability to deftly avoid potentially awkward conversation while on the job.

If you’re looking for more help with answering tricky interview questions — or any other job search-related question — reach out to a career navigator at your local Goodwill.