A reader writes:
I have been job searching for entirely far too long. I get quite a few interviews but no offers, so I hired a consultant to help me with interviewing techniques. She says I should never mention in interviews that I have a child because, for example, one of the interviewers might be having trouble conceiving and to hear about my kid is painful and unnecessary. Given this logic, couldn’t one argue that it isn’t appropriate in the office among coworkers to mention children, period (e.g., how would you know if a coworker is having trouble conceiving)?
However, occasionally I get asked, “What do you do outside of work?” and I don’t have a lot to say to this because a lot of my time is spent doing things with my child. Should I censor that I have a kid and that he is where my attention goes? Also, he and I do things together that form the basis of having things to talk about with coworkers. I am a bit socially awkward and definitely not very good at small talk, so I find that having done things with him — for example, attended festival whatever this past weekend — gives me something to talk about in situations where I am expected to say something not work related.
I expect I might need to default to other hobbies as an answer to this question, but to be honest, I don’t have much in the way of other hobbies. He’s it. That said, I do very much enjoy television — ever since The Sopranos it’s been a high art form in my opinion — is it okay to mention I enjoy TV? I love movies, too — is that an acceptable hobby? And I read the Guardian a lot — is _that_ a hobby? Obviously we can see where this is going — I lean toward the cerebral instead of, say, ultimate frisbee in my spare time.
In this posting about a great cover letter, the woman who wrote it says, “I used to write very boring, run of the mill cover letters, but I found that once I started personalizing them – mentioning my kids in this one…”. I don’t and wouldn’t mention my child in cover letters, but could use some guidance on if it is ever not inappropriate to mention him in an interview / how to answer the “What do you do outside of work?” question.
The consultant you’re working with is giving you weird advice. It’s common advice not to mention kids in an interview when you can avoid it, but that’s because you’re trying to avoid discrimination from people who think “Oh, she’ll never be able to stay late” or “Will she call out when her kid is sick?” It’s not because your interviewer might be having trouble conceiving and so will reject you for mentioning your own child. That’s a really odd stretch.
Frankly, I think the old advice about never mentioning the existence of your kids in an interview is becoming outdated — it’s pretty common now to hear perfectly strong candidates say things like “I’m looking for a job with less travel because I have young kids” or “I moved back here after having kids because I wanted to be closer to family.” There’s more of an understanding these days that normal humans often have kids and we don’t have to pretend in interviews that they don’t — and especially if you’re a candidate with lots of options, you may want to screen out employers who aren’t family-friendly. But if you want to play it very safe, which in your case you might since you’re having trouble getting offers, you might stick to the more traditional approach of not mentioning kids at this stage. (I also wouldn’t put it in a cover letter regardless. I think the letter you referenced worked despite the mention of kids, not because of it.)
As for how to answer “what do you do outside of work?” — typically when interviewers ask this, they’re not going to read a ton into what you say. They’re just looking to get a better sense of you as a person. It’s fine to say you’re a huge movie buff and do a lot of reading, or that you’re an obsessive consumer of news and read the Guardian a lot. I might not say TV — just because a lot of people do still have a stereotype of TV being mindless and low-brow. (I agree with you that much of it isn’t, and I’ve never understood why saying you attend a lot of theater would be considered cultured but saying you watch a lot of TV isn’t. But that’s often how it goes.) It sounds like you could also say you love exploring the area — that you attend a lot of festivals and community events (yes, you’re taking your kid, but it’s still true).
For people who don’t have anything that would typically be considered a hobby, it’s fine to say “I have a lot of family in the area who I see often, which is great” or “I’m trying to get better at cooking” (assuming you nominally cook) or “Right now I’m spending a lot of time fixing up my house” (which doesn’t have to mean major construction work; it can mean you’re on a closet organizing kick) or whatever ways you actually like spending time. It doesn’t have to be a hobby in the “I play Ultimate Frisbee” sense; interviewers are just trying to get know a little more about you than what’s on your resume.
how to answer when an interviewer asks “what do you do outside of work?” was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.