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Can you ask me that?

by Douglas E. Welch

July 23, 1999

© 1999, Douglas E. Welch

Ask people about the most stressful situation they have ever been in and job interviews will be near the top of the list. There is so much riding on a few minutes in someone?s office. You are trying to put your best foot forward an, in some cases, you might even be a little desperate. Maybe you need to make that next rent payment. These realities can leave you open to subtle abuses of the interview process.

Regardless of your desire to win a job there are a few situations that you should never accept. While interview abuses may not reach the level of harassment or litigation if an interviewer steps outside of appropriate boundaries it can be a sign that the company may have issues or problems much deeper than the interview process itself.

Before you go on your next interview, here are a few guidelines about what an interviewer shouldn?t be asking you.

Questions, questions

While laws vary from state to state, here are some areas that interviewers have no business asking about:

  • Child care, pregnancy or birth control
    • Example: Are you planning on having children?
  • Race, color, national origin or ancestry
    • Example: So is Fernandez a Mexican name?
  • Religion or Religious holidays
    • Example: Will you be available to work during the High Holy Days?
  • Health conditions, Medical history, disabilities or handicaps
    • Example: Are you sure you can get around the office in your wheelchair?

Malicious or mindless?

To paraphrase an unknown author, "never ascribe to malice what could more easily be ascribed to stupidity." Often, interviews will stray into the areas mentioned above merely because the interviewer is ignorant of the law. It is best to assume this first rather than take offense immediately. You can gently dismiss the question or remind the person that such a question is out of bounds. You don?t want to sound defensive but you do want to avoid answering the question. If the interviewer insists on pursuing the question you will have to make a more important decision.

Get to the point

If you are offended by a question or its wording it may be time to end the interview and move on to your next prospect. The action you take after that depends on how offended you are and the chances of salvaging the interview.

If the interview was scheduled by a human resources representative, ask to be taken back to their office. In private, explain to them what occurred and why you asked to be brought to them. HR people usually have a better understanding of the legalities of the hiring process. In the best situations they will attempt to settle the issue immediately. They want to avoid any litigation that might arise from the interview, even if you don?t mention or threaten them with it.

In the worst case, you might have been interviewing with a HR representative. This person should know better than to ask illegal questions but you can run into ignorant people in any department. In this case you will want to terminate the interview and then make notes of everything that was said and the questions you felt were illegal. Don?t embellish on the facts. Write them out as unemotionally as possible. These notes will be very important should you decide to litigate.

Litigate or leave it alone

Litigation over perceived bias can be very difficult, time consuming and draining on both your personal and professional life. That said, egregious abuses should be brought to an employment lawyer.

It will be up to your own conscience to decide what is best for you. It is rare that you run into someone who is purposefully discriminatory, but when you do you should consider that you might not be the only person they have discriminated against. Your actions can help others in cases like this.

As you interview for your next job, be on the lookout for questions that border on being illegal or offensive. Most interviews go fine but there is always a possibility for abuse. Don?t let your desire or your desperation convince you to put up with interviewers who step over the line. You need to keep your own best interests in mind. There is always another job possibility out there and along with that job, someone who knows how to interview correctly.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at: http://www.welchwrite.com/

He can reached via email at douglas@welchwrite.com

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