What you need to know about what they can ask
Job interviewers are not allowed to ask certain questions. But what do you say if they do?
Over the course of a long career in public relations, Bonnie Russell has been interviewed for numerous jobs. But not all companies have made the process easy – or legally correct.Skip to next paragraph
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As a college student, Ms. Russell applied to a public relations firm where Barry Goldwater was a client. "Are you a Republican or Democrat?" the interviewer asked her. "I was so brand-new I answered the question," she says. "And no, I didn't get the job."
Later, when Russell lived in Utah, religion came up in indirect ways in interviews. She learned to answer vaguely.
Then, as years passed, what she calls "the age question" became a factor. She says, "I answered first with a laugh before sweetly adding, 'You should know I'm old enough to know that questions alluding to age shouldn't be asked.' "
It has been more than 40 years since federal equal employment opportunity laws first prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin. Most states also have antidiscrimination laws. Although legal experts see general compliance with the law, some job seekers still find themselves fielding improper questions.
"It happens all the time," says John Petrella, an employment lawyer representing management in Livingston, N.J. "It's a very easy area for employers to get in trouble. It's really easy to run afoul of the antidiscrimination laws. You have to be vigilant and diligent about training."
Legal experts find that Fortune 500 companies avoid problems by maintaining savvy human resources departments. Interviewers know the limits of the law. Problems are more likely to arise in small and mid-size firms, where, Mr. Petrella notes, "the office manager might be the recruiter."
Small, start-up companies can be especially susceptible to mistakes during interviews. "Everything is happening fast, they're multitasking, and they don't pause necessarily as much as they could to ask themselves if a question might be judicious," says Steve Harrison, a corporate ethicist and author of "The Manager's Book of Decencies."
Even when employers know what they are and aren't allowed to ask, they may not know what to say when an applicant volunteers certain information.
Petrella, the father of three children, offers a hypothetical example. "If I'm interviewing a woman and she says she has two little ones at home, we might start talking about the kids. It's not an issue that should be discussed. If the person doesn't get the job, they can turn around and sue the employer, saying, 'All we talked about was the kids.' "
Even so, inappropriate questions do not usually result in a lawsuit, Petrella says. "But we will often get demand letters from clients. They'll say that an applicant is alleging they've been discriminated against. Frequently it's [about] disabilities. Very often it's women who get asked questions about child care. Sometimes it's an applicant just wishing it doesn't happen to someone else."
In interviewing applicants with disabilities, Petrella says, "You can ask if they can perform the essential functions, but you can't ask how they're going to do it. Once an offer is made, you can talk about whether they need an accommodation."
Despite progress, women still face questions about family issues. One of Christine Hohlbaum's first job interviews after grad school was for a position as a coordinator for an international youth exchange organization. "The CEO had his volunteers ask me questions such as 'Are you married?' and 'Do you have kids yet?' " she says. "One even said to me, 'You aren't gonna leave us to have kids, are ya?' "