Handling Personal Questions on the New Job

“Starting a new job can make us feel like the new kid on the first day of school: nervous, yet eager to fit in and make a good first impression.” A. Volpe, The New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post  with Answer Key

Excerpt: How to Answer Tricky Personal Questions at a New Job, By A. Volpe The New York Times

“The social component is an important part of any job. Research shows that building camaraderie with co-workers and chit-chatting with supervisors can promote harmony and good health. And the first 90 days are crucial: A 2013 study found that new employees are more likely to receive support during this period…’The stronger the support system you have around you, the more likely you are to feel comfortable, confident and able to succeed’ said Michael Woodward, a workplace psychologist.

Getting there, however, often means navigating a gauntlet of questions from all of these new people in your life. These are likely to range from the moderately professional to the intimately personal, including queries about your age, relationship status, employment history and social habits.


Since research suggests that first impressions last for months, how you respond, even to seemingly innocuous icebreakers, can have an impact on how your colleagues perceive you. Instead of stumbling over your words, here’s how to answer these tricky questions with confidence.

‘How do you feel about so-and-so?’

Gossip at work is common, Dr. Woodward said, as is the desire to be a part of a group. In a new work environment, this combination can be harmful if you fall in with colleagues who are known for being negative and wasting productive time. While complaining with co-workers can turn some of these colleagues into friends, Jill Jacinto, a millennial career expert, said it’s best to avoid gossip altogether.

‘If someone asks, ‘What do you think of Mark? Have you worked with him yet?’ just focus on the professional,’ she said.  ‘He’s great to work with. He seems to know technology really well.’

‘Do you want to join us for happy hour?’

Chatting over lunch or at a post-work happy hour is a great way to get to know your colleagues and learn about the office ecosystem.

‘Those invitations will inevitably dry up,’ Ms. Jacinto said. ‘Even though you’re exhausted after your first week, you want to make sure you do go to those types of things and get to know your co-workers.’

Keep the conversation light, Ms. Jacinto said; pop culture, weekend plans and the best lunch spots are safe topics. However, feel free to inquire about your new colleagues’ roles, duties and history with the company, so long as you let your peers do most of the talking.

If you don’t drink alcohol, experts suggest considering making an effort to attend anyway, if that is something you feel comfortable with. Use it as an opportunity to let your new co-workers know that you’d rather get to know them over coffee instead of cocktails next time — if you’re comfortable disclosing such information, Ms. Jacinto said.

‘Are you seeing anyone?’

Questions about relationship status can be tricky to decipher because you don’t know the asker’s intention, said Maggie Mistal, a career and executive coach.

Get to the root of the inquiry by asking another question in response, she said. This could be a lighthearted quip, such as, ‘Why, do you know anybody?’ or, ‘Are you?’…

‘When did you graduate?’

Finding a subtle way to put a timestamp on aspects of your career is an effective way of hinting at your experience without showing your hand, said Amy Cooper Hakim, an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and workplace expert.

Dr. Hakim said she has done this herself when others have made comments signifying an underestimation of her experience.

‘I’m in my 40s and people think I’m a lot younger,’ she said. If you find your expertise questioned, she finds adding career-related context to be effective, saying, ‘When I was in a corporate office 15 years ago ….’She added:  ‘t seems to add a little bit of credibility.’

‘Are you on social media?’

Social media platforms have permeated into the workplace and have become essential networking and career-development tools for many professions…However, some of the personal updates you share with your close friends on Facebook may not be office-appropriate. For this reason, Dr. Woodward suggests you politely suggest colleagues connect with you instead on LinkedIn, a platform designed for professional connections…At the end of the day, think about your career big-picture, Ms. Sims said, and professional connections are essential.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

 Predictions: Using a Pre-reading Organizer

Directions:  Ask students to examine the title of the post and of the actual article they are about to read. Then, have them  examine the photos. Ask students to write a paragraph describing what they think this article will discuss. Students can use a Pre-reading organizer for assistance.

Pre-reading chart by J. Swann


II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. Jacinto is a millennial career expert.
  2. You want to err on the side of kindness.
  3. You should get to know about the office ecosystem.
  4. Feel free to inquire about your new colleagues’ roles,  and duties.
  5. If you’re comfortable disclosing such information then it’s fine.
  6. You can respond with a lighthearted quip.
  7. Career-related context adds a little bit of credibility.
  8. Social media platforms have become essential networking tools.
  9. Questions about relationship status can be tricky to decipher.
  10. You don’t need to defend your choices.

Grammar Focus: Structure and Usage 

Directions: The following groups of sentences are from the article. One of the sentences in each group contains a grammatical  error. Students are to identify the sentence (1, 2, or 3 ) from each group that contains the grammatical error.


  1. The social component is an important part into any job.
  2. The first 90 days are crucial.
  3. New employees receive support during this period.


  1. Try not to stumble  under your words.
  2. Gossip at work is common.
  3. Your response should be professional and honest.



  1. Having lunch is a good way to get over know your colleagues.
  2. Keep the conversation light.
  3. At the end of the day, think about your career.


Reading Comprehension:Fill-ins

Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentencestaken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.

While you don’t ___to ___your choices, by simply saying that you ___not to talk about ___issues in the workplace you will ___convey the ___to your new ___not to broach this___ again.

WORD LIST: personal, topic, colleagues,effectively,message,defend,  need,prefer,

Discussion Questions for Comprehension /Writing

Directions: Place students in groups and have them discuss the following questions/statements. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the topics mentioned.

  1. When you started your new job did people ask you questions about your personal  life?  What were some of the questions? 
  2. How did you feel about being questioned?
  3. According to Dr. Woodward which social media platform is not considered office-appropriate? Why?
  4. Which social platform is designed for professional connections?
  5. Would you (or have you)  questioned new workers at your job?  Why?
  6. After reading this article do you think you would change the questions you ask new workers?  Explain why or why not.


1-Minute Free Writing Exercise

Directions: Allow students 1 minute to write down one new idea they’ve learned from the reading. Ask them to write down one thing they did not understand in the reading.Review the responses as a class. Note: For the lower levels allow more time for this writing activity.


Category: Jobs