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In the past two years I have gone for about six or so interviews. In at least four of those interviews I was asked if I am married, and following that question I am asked what my wife does / where she works.

In answer to this question, I just tell the interviewer what she does for a living. However, this question does appear to me to be rather strange. Why would they want to know what my wife does for a living?

Edit: If it helps, I don't live in the US, I live in South Africa.

  • is it actually in the middle of the interview or is it at the beginning or end such that they're just making conversation? – Dean MacGregor Jun 12 '15 at 6:02
  • @DeanMacGregor During the interview in the middle, not just at the chatty phase before the interview – Cloud9999Strife Jun 12 '15 at 6:09
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    Y'know, it isn't unreasonable to respond to weird interview questions with "I'm confused. Is that really relevant?" They may say "yes" and not explain, or they may explain, or they may say "not really, just getting a general sense of who you are" but as long as you aren't ding this on obviously reasonable questions it's unlikely to hurt, and it might help you give a useful answer. – keshlam Jun 12 '15 at 14:09
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    @keshlam I prefer "Could you explain why that is relevant", because then it's very hard for them not to give a reason without being extremely rude. – DJClayworth Jun 12 '15 at 20:28
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    Hmm, what if you are "the wife"? :/ – Jane S Jun 14 '15 at 4:29
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I don't ask this question, but there are places that do. Because it's not legal to ask if you're married or not, it tends to get asked in a very circular way, but often, what they're really asking is some variant on this:

How easy is it for you to move from city to city?

Not whether you're a stable family person, someone who can be paid less because you have two incomes or must be paid more because you have a family to support, or someone of good character. Just mobility.

Many places that are hiring doctors, professors, and executives, and expect those people to move to the new city will actually help to find a job for the spouse of the candidate they want. Truly. The more portable your spouse's job is, the happier they are. Other places may be less likely to make you an offer if your spouse could cause you to move to another city (your spouse has a high-flying geographically rare job) and more likely if your spouse can work anywhere (teacher, store clerk, office worker, chef.)

If you don't live in a place that forbids this question, or you do and it's asked anyway, I agree that you should clarify the question by finding out why they want to know. The best way to do that is to paraphrase. For example:

Are you wondering how easy it will be for me to move to your location for this job?

If they say yes, you could then reply "I can move immediately, you do not need to worry about the other members of my family at all" or "I have many ties to this city but I wouldn't have applied to your job unless I was willing to make the move to your location. Don't worry about my family members in that regard." These answers don't reveal anything about you but they answer the question.

If the job is in the place where you live, it's trickier, but

Are you wondering about my home support and my connections to [this city]?

If they say yes, you could then reply "I love living here and plan to do so indefinitely unless an amazing opportunity arises that would be worth leaving behind all I have here - friends, family, my home and so on."

If they say no when you ask "Are you wondering..." then they will probably clarify what they want. You can then decide whether you're ok answering that question or not.

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Aside from the ability to ask you a question like this (it is allowable to ask in the US etc, but avoided as it's illegal to base a decision on sexual orientation info that may come out as a result), there are a number of reasons to know what your spouse does. Them having (or not having ) a job can be a benefit to the employer:

Spouse with career good

  • You are likely to be settled, and not prone to wild partying etc
  • People with working spouses may work harder to try and compete with them on salary etc
  • You may accept a lower salary for a good job as you have other money coming in
  • If you have a spouse with a career of standing it can be like a reference as you are unlikely to do anything that would have a negative effect on their career.

Spouse with career not so good

  • If you have kids you may have to attend school things, look after them when sick etc as spouse can't get time off
  • You may need to leave right on finishing time everyday to collect kids as spouse cannot due to work patterns
  • If they want to relocate you to another part of the country, a spouse with career is more likely to refuse
  • You may be more inclined to leave if you have issues due to a second pay coming in
  • you may have a more fixed window for holidays due to spouse's work patterns

So it depends, there can be good reasons for knowing what your spouse does.

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    Competing with your wife on salary? Really? I didn't know love was about competition. – Diego Sánchez Jun 12 '15 at 7:55
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    Depending on the industry and the position, they may also be looking for conflicts of interest, or worried about accidental leaks of company information to a competitor. – ColleenV Jun 12 '15 at 12:26
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    @DiegoSánchez a lot of people, especially men, get hung up with making more than their wife. They sometimes feel inferior. – Bill Leeper Jun 12 '15 at 14:47
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    It's illegal to ask in the US according to this Dept of Labor presentation - pdf on the basis of family/marital status. – mkennedy Jun 12 '15 at 19:13
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    ...and all those reasons are exactly why civilized countries make asking that question illegal. – DJClayworth Jun 12 '15 at 19:33
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I was asked about my wife in an interview a while back and I believe it was because I was kinda low balling my wage demands for a slightly junior position. I think what they were really trying to determine was, "Can you support yourself on this wage or are you just going to want a raise or leave straight away".

Personally I don't find it an unreasonable question to ask, however if they asked about her salary or working pattern it I'd probably be far less keen to answer.

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    You are the first person I have ever heard of who thinks its reasonable that they be denied a job based on what job their wife does. – DJClayworth Jun 12 '15 at 19:40
  • I think I said 'I don't find it an unreasonable question to ask', I'm not generally involved with interviewing but I would presume this is more of a question that is used to build a picture of the candidate than the deciding factor. If anyone has experience of someone being denied a job solely on this criteria I'd be interested in the justification for that. – Dustybin80 Jun 12 '15 at 21:17
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The fact that you are married may have relevance for how your payment, taxes, and various social costs are calculated. But this should be handled not during the interview but later, after you started as an employee, by the HR department. I can not see how relevant the fact of your marriage can be for your qualification of any job.

I fail to see any relevance of your wife's occupation for your interview. The company wants to hire you, not your wife. It is your qualification that counts.

In addition, details about the life of your wife are her private matter. It is for her to decide whom she tells about her occupation or other private things.

In an interview situation, before you answer this question, you could ask back what relevance your wife's occupation may have for you being qualified for the job. Ask the interviewer why she thinks this is a relevant question.

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In most countries discriminating based on whether you are married, whether you have kids, or what job your wife does is illegal. And while it is not technically illegal to ask if you are married, (or this, which is an equivalent question) most companies don't allow their interviewers to do it because it opens the company to a discrimination lawsuit. I have no knowledge of South African law, and I don't know if this is the case there. If you want to find out, most HR professionals will know the answer, so ask one of them.

Your response is going to depend on how you feel about the fact hat you've been asked an intrusive question. If you don't care that this is an intrusive question then give a truthful answer - assuming of course that you think the truthful answer will help you. However beware that it's not always obvious what kind of answer they are looking for. Maybe they prefer someone who is not married so you can devote more time to work. Maybe they want someone who is married and won't party. Maybe they want someone with a stay-at-home wife because, well, they just like traditional values.

If you don't want to take the path of least resistance, and maybe strike a small blow for ethical hiring practices, there are a number of lines you can take.

  1. Ask them why they want to know. This is always a good idea for questions you are not sure what to do with. If they say "Just curious" or "Just making conversation" then you can say you'll be happy to chit-chat when you've got a job offer. If they give you a reason that tells you more about what they are looking for.
  2. If there is a legal restriction in your country say up front "I'm not sure that's a question you should be asking me".
  3. After the interview is over, tell the HR professional who is handling your recruitment that you were asked that question, and ask if it's company policy to ask questions like that. There is a pretty good chance that they will apologize to you, and that the interviewer will get a talking-to.
  4. Launch a lawsuit. Probably not going to succeed, but if they have done anything else discriminatory you might just win. But don't do this unless you are prepared for a long, hard and probably pointless battle.
  5. Make a note that this is probably a company that is OK with intruding into your private life, and put that into your consideration of whether you want to work there.
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    in anglo-saxon countries it's like that but AFAIK in continental Europe stating the civil status either in the CV or when asked is pretty normal. Being SA in the middle between african, dutch and anglo-saxon, it could be anything. – Formagella Jun 14 '15 at 13:11
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They probably just want to know if you are a family man. You are perhaps more likely to be settled, and maybe more likely to be reliable if you have family responsibilities.

They are probably interested in what your wife does in order to gauge your character. For example if your wife were a stripper that might count against you.

In the US it's now illegal to ask such questions because it could introduce prejudice against people with alternative lifestyles. To my knowledge there are no such laws in SA.

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    It may be more like "is there anybody you will complain to you if the company makes you work 70 hours per week". In the US gaming software industry, being married will likely work against you getting a job. Which is probably better for you. And why would my wife being a stripper count against me? Or her? – gnasher729 Jun 14 '15 at 5:57
  • @gnasher729 - The OP asked why the interviewer would ask the question. The most logical answer, I believe, is that the interviewer is checking for family values. Whether or not this is acceptable practice is outside the scope of the answer. – superluminary Jun 15 '15 at 9:15

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