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.

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?' "

When she did not get the job, Ms. Hohlbaum, author of "Diary of a Mother," wrote a letter to the CEO complaining about his unprofessional staff. She heard later that he had come under fire for unethical behavior.

Sometimes interviewers try to take an indirect approach. Two weeks ago, when Frank Maltese of New York was preparing to be interviewed for a comptroller's position, a woman in the human resources department made a request: "Please bring your driver's license to the interview."

Mr. Maltese, who is in his 60s, knew what that meant: The company wanted to learn his age, a question they could not legally ask. He canceled the interview. "It was a waste of my time even to go there," he says, explaining that this was not the first time prospective employers have tried to ferret out his age.

Last year an interviewer at a hospital asked Maltese when he graduated from college. "I said, 'You should not ask that question.' " Others have wanted to know how old his children are, or if any are married. "They're piecing time periods together," he says.

For Joseph Dans, religion became a problematic subject. When he was a candidate for a director's position at a large nonprofit organization, one interviewer asked, "What is your church affiliation?"

The question "just kind of floored me," says Mr. Dans. "I replied, 'If it's relevant, I'm Lutheran.' I didn't get the job. Obviously it was the wrong question to ask from a legal perspective, but what's the right answer?" He is currently a director for a public relations firm in New York.

Other subjects can be less clear-cut. "You can ask about job-related associations, such as, 'Are you a member of the American Bar?' " Petrella explains. "But social ones that might identify a religion or a political party, those things are off."

Several years ago, a large public relations agency invited Jeannette Boccini, a New York publicist, for an interview. Later she met with the president, a major figure in the profession.

"We were having a lovely chat when he asked me, 'So, do you support yourself?' " she says. "I was stunned. Did he think he could pay me less if I had a spouse at home who was also bringing in money? After a moment of silence, I said I didn't really think his question was relevant to the job, and redirected the conversation so I could highlight my talents."

Soon after that, she received a job offer from another company. "I had already made up my mind that I didn't want to work at that company. I took great pleasure in calling to say that I was going elsewhere."

Some questions, if not illegal, are definitely inappropriate. When Rick Gibbs moved to New York seven years ago, he was interviewed by two people at an advertising agency. The man identified with him as a fellow Midwesterner. The woman, a New Yorker, told him, "Ohio is nothing like New York. You'll never make it here."

Both acted improperly, Mr. Gibbs says, calling it "a vivid example of bias in both directions." He is now a senior human relations specialist at a personnel management firm.

When out-of-bounds questions occur, applicants must decide how to react. "If you put up a stink, you're definitely not going to get the job," Dans says.

Russell, a legal publicist in Del Mar, Calif., likes to deflect inappropriate questions with gentle humor. "I laugh, they laugh back, and we move on. You just try to turn it into a plus."

Mr. Harrison offers another approach. "Maybe it's a great company," he says. "Instead of just saying, 'Game's over, you just asked an illegal question,' one way of dealing with it is to ask another question: 'Just what motivates you to ask that question? Is this an occupational requirement? What does this have to do with the job I'm interviewing for?' "

He finds that challenges sometimes arise during the third interview. "It's time for an informal lunch. The guard is down on both sides a bit."

Carole Martin, an interview coach, offers choices for handling these situations. First, she says, "You can answer the question and move on. This may not feel good, but how important is the question to you?"

Second, you can choose not to answer. "This may feel good, but they might take offense and consider you a troublemaker," Ms. Martin says. Third, consider the nature of the question. "Do you want to work for a company that asks this type of question in an interview?"

Christopher Novak, head of an executive coaching firm in Marcellus, N.Y., tells interview candidates to be prepared for inappropriate questions. But he suggests giving errant interviewers the benefit of the doubt the first time, assuming that they just misspoke. "I advise them to respond to the essence of the question rather than the specifics when it involves an out-of-bounds issue," he says.

For example, Mr. Novak says, "A skilled interviewer might ask, 'This sales position requires 75 percent travel. Is there any reason you would not be able to meet that obligation?' That same probing in the words of an untrained hiring manager might sound like, 'We're on the road a lot in this job, so how would you take care of your children?' The first question is legal while the second is not."

He would advise the candidate to respond, "I certainly understand the travel requirements of this position, and I am fully prepared to meet that obligation." The answer "satisfies the query on travel availability without disclosing specific child-care arrangements or even verifying that there are children in the family." A persistent bias in questioning, Novak says, should be a red flag to the candidate.

Stiff laws on interviews may be uniquely American. "In Europe, you can ask a lot of questions," Harrison says, noting that a photo may appear on a résumé. Although US employers understand the need for these laws, Petrella says, "It makes it hard to know who's coming to work for you. In the best-case scenario, you'd like to be able to talk about a lot of things."

Julia Sherlock, director of career services at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, cautions students to be careful about answering "anything that can be used in a discriminatory manner that has nothing to do with the skills or knowledge needed to successfully perform in the position." That includes anything of a personal nature that could lead to a personal answer – religious beliefs, politics, family life.

Despite these cautions, Ms. Sherlock finds that employers who recruit on campuses are "pretty much in tune with what's appropriate." She adds, "From where I stand, 97 percent of the time these are professional interviewers."

Gibbs urges applicants to keep interviews focused on their qualifications and accomplishments. As competition for talent increases, he offers employers this advice: "Applicants are looking at you as much as you're looking at them. They have choices. Improper questions may lead them to accept another position with a company that may not be as focused on non-job-related issues."

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