Advice » In the Workplace» Workplace Issues » How to Handle Personal Question ...
How to Handle Personal Questions in the Workplace

How to Handle Personal Questions in the Workplace

“So there I was, standing in the receiving line at this high-powered fundraiser when this VP I know asks me ‘What happened to your hair?’” says Daria (not her real name). “I suppose she was referring to the fact that I had blown my hair out since I mostly wear it slicked back and curly, but I said something inane and kept smiling and moving through the line.”

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. African Americans are often surprised by how casually some people make personal remarks or ask questions that probe a little too deeply.

Donna Smith, a sales director for a popular women’s magazine, finds that her white colleagues think nothing of asking about income, mortgage and car payments, “and a lot of other things I think fall under the category of more than they need to know.”

So how do you handle these scenarios?

“I rely on humor,” says Neal Johnson, a media executive. “When somebody makes those comments to me, I might respond with, ‘If I tell you, then I won’t have any secrets left.’” And if the person presses the issue? “I redirect the conversation to another topic,” says Johnson.

Pamela Brown, a transportation entrepreneur, takes a more direct approach. “I’ll ask why they need to know that information,” she says. “Usually they are so stunned, they change the subject themselves.”

Bill Jones, also an entrepreneur, uses a strategy of deflection. “I’ve actually told people I was a drug dealer,” he says. “When they hear that from a 6-foot-4-inch black man, they usually just go on about their business.”

Humor, flippancy or redirection are great strategies when nothing’s at stake, but suppose these comments are coming from your boss?

Tactful Approaches

Chandra Jackson, a hotel manager offers this advice: “I carry myself in a way that let’s people know I’m all about business. When employers ask inappropriate questions, I let them know, gently but firmly, that I consider that personal and choose not to respond.”

Many factors influence how people perceive comments made by others. Culture, personality, cognitive styles, generational differences and other variables come into play. When you’re the focus of unwanted remarks, however, you need to know how to respond. Here are some tips:
  • Consider the Speaker’s Intent, Not the Impact on You: Recognize that from the speaker’s perspective, the remark or question may be purely conversational.
  • Evaluate the Context: Responding to someone in the grocery store line might not be worth the emotional energy. In the workplace, where you need to establish and maintain boundaries, a well-thought-out response may be needed.
  • Don’t Attack -- Use ‘I’ Statements: Try saying, “I feel uncomfortable responding to that question, because it strikes me as too personal. I’d appreciate it if we kept our conversation on a different level.” Don’t say, “You’ve got no business asking me things like that. Who do you think you are?”
  • Practice ‘The Moment of Awareness': This was coined by Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline. Observe how the comment makes you feel. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling? What am I thinking? What do I want to accomplish through this situation?” This technique helps you gain perspective in the moment. Using it gives you a better chance of saying what you mean in the way you mean it.
  • Deal with Repeat Offenders: If someone doesn’t seem to adapt based on your responses, you may need to take a firmer stand. It’s important to have substantive discussion about topics or behaviors you find offensive. But plan your approach before you engage in dialogue with the offender. And always remember to pick your battles.

Latest Jobs

Posted: 05/27/2015
Peoria, IL
Women's Prison Association
Posted: 05/27/2015
New York City, NY, 10003
Posted: 05/27/2015
New Haven, CT, 06510
Posted: 05/27/2015

Want more personalized results?  Update Your Profile


Monster Communities

Teaching Community
Where teachers meet and learn.
Create and connect.
Networking for the career-minded woman.
Nursing Link
Where nurses call the shots.
More Monster Communities

Monster Partners

Scholarships, financial aid and more ways to pay for school.
Find top campus and online degree programs.
Military portal for the US Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
Financial Aid
Scholarships & financial aid.
Staffing for Government Jobs
Staffing and hiring solutions for federal government agency jobs.
More Monster Partners

Job Hunt Strategy

Six Ways to Make a Recruiter Hate You
If you want to blow your chances with recruiters -- and, by extension, with the companies they work for -- here are six perfect ways to do so.

Resumes & Cover Letters

Rev Up Your Resume to Relocate
Hoping to relocate? Get the ball rolling on landing the right job in the right location with these expert resume and cover letter tips.


100 Potential Interview Questions
Interview questions can run the gamut. You probably won't face all 100 of these, but you should still be prepared to answer at least some of them.

Salary & Benefits

10 Questions to Ask When Negotiating Salary
Most of us aren't natural negotiators, but asking these 10 questions during salary negotiations can help you get everything you deserve.

Employee Sourcing

Alt text
November Monster Employment Index Grows 13% Year-Over-Year, Tenth Consecutive Month of Positive Annual Growth.

For Seekers

Campus and Online Degrees
Advance your career and earn more with an online degree.
Free Salary Wizard
What are you worth? Find out and negotiate a better salary.
Research Careers
Get information on jobs and career paths to help guide your choices
Questions & Answers
Find answers to all your career related questions -- powered by Yahoo! Answers
Resume Distribution Service
Our distribution service puts your resume right in the hands of recruiters.
Resume Writing Services
Our experts will craft a keyword-rich resume that stands out in the crowd.
More Career Resources

For Employers

Career Ad Network
Target your job posting to more candidates on thousands of websites.
Hire Right Background Checks
Explore our background check packages to improve the quality of your hires.
Hiring Home Page
Find the best candidates for your business with Monster hiring solutions.
Job Postings
Find the right solution for your hiring needs. Starting at $99.
Power Resume Search
Monster's new search technology precisely matches people with your jobs.
Resource Center
Find staffing insights, labor trends, HR best practices and more.
Target Post
Connect with skilled, hourly and administrative candidates for only $99.

Social Media

Jobs on Twitter
Find jobs in your area and industry.
Monster Careers
Tune into our career advice and discussions tackling a wide range of topics and industries.
Monster Corporate & PR
Stay up-to-date on the latest news. Get the 'Who', 'What', 'When', and 'Why' on all things Monster related.
Monster Customer Service
Got a Monster question? We've got the answer. Whether you're a job seeker or employer, we can help you find the answers you need.
Monster for Employers
Find advice on hiring.
Follow Us
Check out our many pages and stay connected with the latest industry news, events, career advice and job openings.

Other Links

Monster Company Profiles
Explore companies and get information to guide your career decisions.
Compare Salaries
See how your pay stacks up to others in your field.
iPhone Application
Download the Monster app for iPhone and iPod touch.
Monster Job Seeker Blog
Monster Job Seeker Blog.
Monster Thinking Blog
Monster's Recruitment Trends Blog.
Jobs & Career Resources
Search Jobs:
For Employers: Post Jobs | Search Resumes | Advertise
About Monster | Work for Monster | Advertise with Us | AdChoices | Partner with Us | Investor Relations | Social Media
Terms of Use | Privacy Center | Accessibility Center | Help | Security | Contact Us | Sitemap | Mobile
©2015 Monster - All Rights Reserved U.S. Patents No. 5,832,497; 7,599,930 B1; 7,827,125 and 7,836,060 MWW - Looking for Monster Cable? - V: 2015.8.0.34-217