illegal interview questions?

by Ask a Manager on July 30, 2008

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A reader writes:

I am a legal assistant/secretary with 18 years of experience. I am in the process of interviewing for a position with several law firms in the small southern city where I currently live. Repeatedly during interviews, I am being asked the following questions: Do you have children? Where do you live? Is your husband in the Army?

My answers are yes, I have one child (he’s 10), I currently live on a military post and yes, my husband is in the Army (and has been for 22 years). What I would like to know is whether or not these are legal questions to ask. What, exactly, does the fact that I have a child, the fact that I live on a military post and the fact that my husband is in the Army have to do with the fact that I have 18 years of experience, a solid resume, great references, am well organized, and can type 85 wpm? I am sick and tired of answering these questions. It is my belief that they have nothing to do with how well I can do the job. I am most upset by the question about my husband. Yes, we are an Army family. Yes, we move around every 3 to 5 years. However, other employers have hired me despite the fact that they know I will eventually leave, and have been satisfied with my work product. My husband claims I am being asked this question (about him) because we are in the South, where the wages are lower, the “good-ole-boy” network is strong and where I’m considered an “outsider.”

In the meantime, I continue to interview, continue to get asked these questions and continue to become frustrated to the point that I no longer wish to answer these questions. In my opinion, quite frankly, this is not their business. I have 18 years of experience, my resume speaks for itself and I can type like crazy, yet I’m continually asked these questions. Do I have a leg to stand on if I claim that these are illegal questions? I’m asking you because I can’t get a single attorney to actually answer this question — ironic, isn’t it?

There’s a widespread but incorrect belief that these sorts of questions are illegal. The act of asking them actually is not illegal. What can be illegal is rejecting you based on your answers to them. Therefore, since employers aren’t permitted to factor in your answers, there’s no point in asking them and smart interviewers, or interviewers who have ever spoken to a lawyer for more than two minutes, don’t ask them.

So how do you handle it if an interviewer asks you one of these questions? Educating the interviewer on employment law probably isn’t going to endear you to them. Instead, figure out what the question is getting at, and answer that instead. If you think an interviewer is concerned that you’ll leave the job when your husband gets transferred, speak directly to that: “I can commit to the job for at least several years.” If you think they’re concerned that parenthood will get in the way of your job performance: “There’s nothing that would interfere with my ability to work the hours needed and get the job done.”

That said, something about the specific questions you’re being asked, combined with your husband’s take on it, make me think that these interviewers aren’t necessarily worried and trying to screen you out on illegal grounds, but rather are making small talk and not realizing that they’re treading on risky ground. There’s no way to know for sure, but there’s a decent chance that the questions in this particular context are harmless, not factoring into the hiring decision, and just the product of interviewers who aren’t sensitive to the law in this area. It’s certainly your prerogative to make an issue out of it, but on a practical level, I think you need to decide if it’s a battle you feel like fighting or not.

{ 8 comments }

almostgotit.com July 30, 2008 at 3:01 am

If only we could also make it illegal for interviewees to make judgements about us based on our apparent age, weight, and dress too, but we can’t. All we can do in an interview is control all of these “first impression” things as best we can, and realize any one of them may be influence a hiring decision — even if the interviewers themselves aren’t aware of it.

Therefore, I think I’d assume the questions you mention were harmless, but also zero in on any concerns that may lie behind them at the same time. And, as always, remember that interviews are a two-way street. If something smells bad in an interview, that’s something *you* can use in making an employment decision, too.

Totally Consumed July 30, 2008 at 4:18 am

Alison gives the best advice I’ve ever heard on this topic.

Susan Ireland July 30, 2008 at 4:46 pm

Thank you, Askamanager, for clarifying this point! I’ve referenced this post on my blog because I think it’s important for folks to know who to answer these questions to their advantage, rather than be offended by them.

Kelly O July 30, 2008 at 8:06 pm

Coming from a very Southern background, I can easily see someone trying to make small talk – particularly if it’s a military town and you’re new. It’s not meant to make you offended, just to get to know you better.

Yes you can type, but what about your soft skills? In a small community, a lawyer may be working with clients whose families have known and worked with each other for years. The ability to connect with those people is important to the company – maybe it’s not the actual question that’s in play here, but your attitude toward answering it.

It’s just a matter of trying to be open to others points of view, definitely not easy, but a skill that serves you well.

HR Wench July 30, 2008 at 11:45 pm

AAM gave excellent advice, as usual…so I’m just going to add some HR info here because I’m nerdy and it’s fun.

Per federal law the only illegal question (that I know of) is in regards to disability (under the ADA). You CAN ask “can you perform the essential functions of this position with or without reasonable accommodation?” and that is it on that topic.

When it comes to other questions, like those the reader posed, it depends upon the state.

PA has literally outlawed certain questions from even being asked, as have others (I’m too lazy to look them all up). I think it is pretty safe to say, however, that most states haven’t outlawed asking certain interview questions.

Anonymous August 1, 2008 at 3:57 am

There is a flip side to these questions that I have come to appreciate – explaining that I am a military wife also explains the fact that I can’t seem to hold a job for more than 2 years (my resume covers 3 provinces in 5 years). But, I quickly follow up by pointing out that I am a quick learner and have learned to adapt to various work environments very quickly. I also point out, and my references can verify, that I commit to the job from the day I start until the moment I leave (i.e. I don’t “check out” when I give my notice, and I do give as much notice as I can).

Now if I can only get employer to accept that references from others area codes can be as reliable as the ones from down the street.

shambleyjo August 22, 2008 at 4:55 pm

That might be small talk for your interview, but not the ones that I’ve been in. I have been asked questions regarding my husband being in the military and how long I’m planning to stay, and then not hired because they decided that because my husband was in the military I wouldn’t be a good asset to train. This should be illegal. You can rationalize this problem away, but military spouses can’t. I have a college education and I can’t get a job because I’m discriminated against because my husband fights for this countries freedom.

Anonymous October 10, 2009 at 4:29 am

No you cant get a job bc you are a wasteful investment. Why would a company choose you over someone with similar credentials when they know the other person will stay longer. Your husband has an honorable job, but he isn't fighting for our freedom atm, although he is willing too.

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