Before you interview: Hiring has taboos, too

Think job seekers are the only ones with sweaty palms?

Interviews can be as tricky for employers as they are for prospective hires.

Federal and state laws targeting discrimination limit interviewers to questions related to job functions. Although exceptions to the rule exist, employers have to steer clear of personal questions that may give rise to allegations of discrimination.

"Employers should try to break the job down into its functions, look at each question they're going to ask, and test whether it is related to what the person is going to do on the job," says Elliot Shaller, editor of the Washington-based Employment Law Letter and a labor and employment attorney.

Specifically, employers may not ask "any question that either directly or indirectly would reveal somebody's status as being in a 'protected group,' be it one's race, national origin, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or religion," Mr. Shaller adds.

While federal laws prohibit such questions, some job-seekers still hear them. In fact, 21 percent of 1,000 workers recently surveyed said they were asked an inappropriate or improper question during a job interview. The legal website Find found women were more likely to be asked such questions than men.

Among questions an employer cannot ask: "How old are you?" Nor can an interviewer ask: "When did you graduate from high school?" because that can be seen as determining age. (Even so, job seekers frequently include such information on their resumes.)

Employers must also avoid questions about how many children an interviewee has or future family plans. "The argument for why that is not permitted is because [that line of questioning] tends to discriminate against women," says Shaller. "At least historically, women who revealed they were married or were planning to have children were often not considered for positions because they would not be able to travel freely and might have to spend time away from work."

Should a job seeker believe some form of discrimination has taken place, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or equivalent fair-employment-practice agencies in individual states should be the first resource, says Robert Sanders, director of the EEOC's Boston Area office.

These agencies will investigate the matter on the plaintiff's behalf. "You don't have to prove your allegations. You have to be willing to assert them and take an oath. We will investigate the matter further," says Mr. Sanders.

The EEOC or an equivalent state agency will investigate an issue if there is a basis (i.e. color, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability), an issue (i.e. a candidate was not hired), and as long as the matter is timely. It's important to note that fair-employment-practice agencies in different states have different time limits to file charges. In Massachusetts that limit is 300 days. Sanders says that if a state does not have a fair-employment-practice agency, the EEOC has a time restriction of 180 days.

But during an interview, it is up to the prospective hire to choose how to react to an inappropriate question. Shaller points out that besides disability, federal law dictates that asking one of the "don't ask" questions is not by itself discrimination. "It raises an inference of discrimination," says Shaller. "That combined with other evidence may make a case."

If a question is perhaps worded awkwardly or the intention does not appear discriminatory, experts say, it may be good to answer the question, relating the response specifically to the job functions.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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