March 29, 2023

A reader writes:

Is it normal for a hiring manager to ask, somewhat insistently, how a candidate has been supporting herself financially during a period of unemployment? If it’s not normal, which is my suspicion, what could possibly be behind this?

I work in a niche field and was laid off last year in a Covid-related restructure (i.e., it was not performance-related). I’ve now been unemployed and desperately job searching for an entire year. It’s been brutal because my field is already small and my skills are not easily translatable to other lines of work. In short, there are very few opportunities for people like me, and everyone in the field knows that.

I had several interviews for a role in which I’d be a contractor at a client site, and an employee of the contracting agency. It was made clear that it’s informally a contract-to-client hire role, and the contractor is expected to have a very close relationship with the client hiring manager. After multiple in-depth interviews, the client hiring manager called me directly without the contract agency present. To be honest, the rest of the conversation also felt inappropriate, but what really bothered me was that at the end he pointedly asked how I’ve been supporting myself financially, because “a year is a long time,” “I didn’t think unemployment payments were enough to support that,” and “I didn’t know if you were married or had kids.” I politely and non-defensively asked why he asked, and he said he “just wanted to know,” but that I “didn’t have to answer.” I mustered all of my diplomacy to assure him that I wasn’t turning down jobs to rely on unemployment or even hiding a more recent job, if that’s why he was asking, and that the job market was just really difficult right now. He laughed and said that’s not why he asked but just really wanted to know, and asked again.

What could be behind this? I can’t imagine that personal finances are any business of a potential employer for roles like this that don’t require a security clearance. If he was concerned that I had gotten into some unsavory financial arrangements to finance my debt, like drug dealing, that should be covered by the credit check process, right? And I can’t imagine that this was to suss out my salary requirements, because I had agreed to the range before interviewing, and aren’t salary negotiations what he hired the contracting agency to manage? The agency wasn’t even on this call. Also, even if he was stepping into salary negotiations, why does it matter how poor I am now? Salary should be based on merit, not need. If it’s based on need, then I need $10,000,000.

I was already on the fence about this role due to other troublesome behavior I had noticed throughout the process, so am probably going to decline if they offer this job to me. I’m just really curious what could have been behind these questions, especially without the contracting agency present.

This is just a nosy dude.

He felt curious about how you’d supported yourself through a year of unemployment. That curiosity on its own isn’t the problem; the problem is that his brain didn’t immediately tell him it was none of his business. And even after you politely pushed back twice (first by asking why he asked and then by trying to address what you thought he might be concerned about ), he still felt entitled to insist on an answer. And he didn’t have any qualms about admitting that he “just really wanted to know.”

I think you can take that at face value. He just wanted to know. And he’s clueless enough not to realize or care that being interested isn’t the same as having the right to ask.

Because you are a normal, professional person, you’re looking for a way his question could be rooted in something businessy — thinking maybe it was about salary or so forth. And sure, maybe he was looking for signs that he could lowball you on salary. But more than anything, he’s just nosy and feels entitled to get his curiosity satisfied.

I think you’re right to turn down the job, particularly since there have been other danger signs, but it wouldn’t hurt to mention to the contracting agency that you had an odd call and explain what he said to you (not just this, but whatever the other inappropriate parts of the call were too). They may not care since he’s the client — in fact, their attitude may be that whoever they hire needs to deal with this guy, so it’s better to have people self-select out otherwise — but it’s still reasonable to alert them that it’s happening.

Read updates to this letter here and here.

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