'What does your husband do?' and other illegal interview questions

The interview was going fine until the interviewer asked, "What does your husband think of your career?" In these times of affirmative action and equal employment policies, employers are generally in tune with nonsexist practices. But some women still encounter weighted questions in interviews that may cost them a job.

Laws concerning nondiscrimination in hiring are changing rapidly and often are not clear-cut. Federal law does not ban any specific pre-employment inquiries, but sets general guidelines and considers complaints case by case on the basis of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. State laws dictating what may and may not be asked in applications and interviews are often more stringent and specific than federal statute.

Questions about marital status and childrearing are not unlawful per se, according to regulations set by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But any employment practice which restricts jobs for married women, but not married men, violates Title VII. Similarly, hiring practices that discriminate against women with preschool children, and not ment, also provide the basis for Title VII action.

Regarding pregnancy, a recent amendment to Title VII says an employer cannot refuse to hire a woman because of her pregnancy 'so long as she was able to perform the job.'

On the basis of these policies, questions such as the following can be evidence of discrimination in hiring:

Are you (or do you plan to) get married?

What does your husband do?

Do you plan to have a family (or more children)?

Are you pregnant? What birt control do you use?

What arrangements have you made for child care, if you get the job?m

When confronted with a question of this kind, a woman's demeanor is all important, says Evelyn Freedman of Boston's National Organization for Women.

The best way to field a difficult question, she says, is to 'be straight' with the interviewer and simply ask, "How does this relate to the qualifications for the job?" Then it is up to the employer to explain why the company has a legitimate need to ask that question.

Some questions may appear suspicious to the applicant, but the information obtained will not actually be used for discriminatory purposes. Therefore, it's a good idea for applicants to reserve judgment until they know the whole picture.

"The more a woman knows about a company before she goes in, the better off she is," says Ms. Freedman.

In some cases, the interviewer may simply be ignorant of the law and unaware that the question asked could be construed as discriminatory. But in any case, if a complaint is brought against an employer, he must be able to prove that the questions asked were clearly job-related and the information obtained was not used for a discriminatory purpose in the hiring decision.

Corrine Koehler, an interviewer for B. F. Goodrich, says it is difficult to avoid asking friendly questions about the applicant's family in the course of an interview, which can last the better part of a day. She says interviewers have to be very conscious at all times about what they are asking and how they phrase questions.

B. F. Goodrich, she says, employs a fulltime lawyer who works with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As part of the interviewers' training, the lawyer holds sessions to ensure that everyone involved with candidates for jobs is familiar with the legal regulations regarding the interview process.

A spokesperson for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers these suggestions to employers for consistent, nondiscriminatory interviews:

* Train the interviewers so they are aware of equal employment concerns and will avoid improper inquiries.

* Devise a standard interviewing format to ensure uniformity in questioning.

* Make a careful analysis of the open position to ascertain the education, skills, and abilities necessary for the job. A list of specific qualifications will help the interviewer zero in on relevant information and minimize biased hiring decisions.

* Monitor the interviews by requiring reports of each interview. Careful documentation will support and protect the employer if a complaint is raised.

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