When preparing for a job interview, you’re likely to focus on work-related questions and examples to show your skills and experience. Being asked a question about smoking and drinking probably isn’t on your radar, and it shouldn’t be, as this type of question is illegal. However, it is something that does occasionally come up, so it’s best that you are prepared and know how to answer this type of personal question.
A question like this tells the interviewer a lot about you as a person, so think about the image you want to portray when answering, while remaining honest and authentic. As with any interview question, practice this one, and get an answer together that paints you in the right light.
Why hiring managers ask this question
Hiring managers are looking to find out how you will fit into their team and work culture. They might have strict policies on smoking in the workplace or they might be trying to determine if you have a drinking problem that may interfere with your work, and asking this question will help them determine if you are a good match for them.
This is especially likely if the job you’re applying for involves working with vulnerable people or children, is in the healthcare profession, or involves driving or operating machinery.
Alternatively, they may be looking for someone social, who is likely to join the team for a drink. Therefore, it’s important to balance your answer so you don’t sound as though you’re lying, but equally don’t sound as though you have an addiction to alcohol or cigarettes.
As we mentioned earlier, it is actually an illegal question as per the EEOC, and a recruiter shouldn’t ask you if you smoke or drink, but occasionally this question may come up in a round-about way. An employer can ask an applicant about drinking habits so long as the questions do not request information about alcoholism, a protected ADA disability. For example, an employer can ask if the applicant drinks alcohol, or whether the applicant has ever been arrested for driving under the influence.
Steps to preparing a response
If you are put in the position of being asked about your drinking or smoking habits during your interview, don’t panic. Even if you think the question is inappropriate, and certainly isn’t a common question you’ve prepared for, you can still answer in a way that works in your favor. Follow these steps to giving an answer that puts you in a good light, despite the recruiter’s poor interview questioning.
Step 1: Be honest (but not too honest)
The chances are, you do drink alcohol and maybe you smoke. If this is the case, you won’t do yourself any favors by lying and saying that you don’t drink at all. It’s fine to say that you enjoy a social drink, but don’t recount any drunken stories about a night out that got out of hand. Make yourself sound human, without making it sound like you don’t know when to stop. It’s not uncommon for adults to drink alcohol, so you don’t need to feel any shame for enjoying a drink — you just need to make sure you pitch it right.
Step 2: Don’t sound judgmental
If you don’t smoke or drink, or if you do, but on the minimal side, make this clear by all means, but don’t make it sound as though you have anything against anyone who does. Make sure your answer is inclusive and doesn’t paint anyone else in a bad light or say anything that makes you look discriminatory. You don’t know anything about your interviewer. They could be a chain smoker, or a reformed alcoholic, so be kind and respectful in your answer.
Step 3: Read the room
As part of your job interview research, you should have found out details about the company you’re interviewing with, such as their work culture, mission and any causes they support. This might give you a clue as to why you are being asked this question and should inform your answer. If you know that the company is big on team building and employees have lots of out-of-work get-togethers, your answer might be very different to the answer you would give if you know the company supports charities dealing with alcohol abuse, for example.
Step 4: Turn it into an opportunity to highlight your strengths
You can use your answer as a way to show that you know your limits, or that you have been dedicated and disciplined to give up smoking or drinking, if that is the case. This is a great way to demonstrate some transferable skills. It’s also very honest and it can make you vulnerable, which is a great quality and shows your human side.
Step 5: Divert the question to something more positive
You can take this opportunity to talk about a hobby that is more relevant to the job and more appealing to the interviewer. Answer quickly and simply about drinking and smoking and move on to what you enjoy doing instead of drinking, such as team sports, reading, and fundraising. This works well for both people who don’t smoke or drink, or who do and don’t want to go into details.
If you’re still unsure how to approach this personal and intruding question, we have put together several examples for you to draw on, adapt, and make your own. Remember to be true to yourself and don’t tell out and out lies. It’s important that you are able to be yourself in a role.
Example 1: Answer for the drinker who doesn’t want to look like they have a problem
If you're conscious it might seem like you have an alcohol or smoking problem, this is how you could answer:
“I do enjoy a drink socially with friends, but not to excess, and this is always kept to the weekend, so it never interferes with a workday or my ability to perform well in a job. I know my limits and so I know when enough is enough, but I also think that work-life balance is important, so my weekends are when I let off some steam and maybe have a glass of wine to relax.”
Example 2: Answer for someone who used to smoke and no longer does
Here's an example of how to answer if you no longer smoke/drink:
“I used to be a heavy smoker, but I quit three years ago when I was pregnant with my son. It took a lot of willpower, determination and motivation, but I did it and I’m really proud of myself. Nowadays, I can’t actually stand the smell of cigarettes and can’t imagine ever picking one up again. That said, I fully respect other people’s right to smoke if they wish and have nothing against people that choose to smoke.”
Example 3: Answer for a moderate drinker
Here's how to answer if you're a moderate drinker:
“I have the occasional drink on a weekend to unwind after a busy week. Personally, though, I prefer to have a clear head because I use the weekend to play football for my local team, and for wild swimming, and I don’t perform my best if I’ve been drinking. I’m quite health conscious, so I eat well and exercise and heavy drinking and smoking just doesn’t play well into my lifestyle.”
When preparing for an interview, being asked if you smoke or drink alcohol is probably not the first question that comes to mind, but it’s the sort of question that can really affect your interview and the impression you make if you don’t answer it well.
Remember these top tips to make sure you approach this question in the most effective way:
- Be honest — Don’t say you don’t smoke or drink if you do, just make sure you don’t make it sound like you do these things to excess.
- Focus on something else — Demonstrate other qualities and strengths through your ability to quit smoking, or by highlighting other hobbies and interests.
- Avoid being judgmental — Don’t judge others for their smoking and drinking habits. You never know who is sitting across the table from you.
- Remember the company’s values — Research the company so you know what type of answer they are looking for.
Asking a question like “do you smoke or drink alcohol” is actually illegal and so should not be asked. Be mindful of the type of company that includes this in their interview question and consider whether you want to work for a company that ask this. Also, bear in mind that companies will most likely know they can’t ask you this and so you might get the same question phrased in a way that gets the same answer — but is more acceptable.
Feeling nervous about an interview? Check out these top interview tips:
Have you ever been asked this question (or something similar) in an interview? How did you answer? Let us know in the comments below!
Originally posted 11 June 2014.