my boss asks job candidates about their marital status, children, and church!

A reader writes:

Recently, I sat in on an interview with the VP of our department, and the questions he asked potential candidates included, “Are you married? Do you have any children? What are your activities? Are you involved in your church or activities such as scouting?” How do I address the fact that these questions are off-limits in a tactful way? I am only newly hired, and I’ve heard that the VP doesn’t handle criticism well.

Well, he’s allowed to ask about hobbies and community involvement, but you’re right that asking about marriage, children, or religion is a really bad idea.

First, a legal note:  While the act of asking these questions isn’t illegal (although many people mistakenly believe that it is), what is illegal (in the U.S., anyway) is rejecting a candidate based on her 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, don’t ask them. In addition, because so many people think the questions themselves are illegal, it’s a really good way to make a candidate really uncomfortable.

Okay, back to your question — on how to approach your VP about this. You have a couple different options:

First, the direct approach: You say the VP doesn’t take criticism well, but you could approach this as simple information-sharing. For instance: “Joe, I noticed you asked about marriage, children, and church in that interview. I was always taught that there were legal issues with asking those questions, because candidates who we don’t hire could claim we illegally discriminated against them based on their answers to those questions. I know that’s not at all why you were asking, but it’s been drilled into my head that those are red flag questions for candidates.”

Alternately, do you have an HR department? Can you discreetly suggest to them that they give this VP — or, even better, all employees who participate in interviews — some remedial guidance on what questions shouldn’t be asked?

If you talk to him yourself and he’s resistant (says “that’s not how we do it here” or whatever), you’ll probably need to resort to option #2 anyway, so if you think he’s likely to blow you off, you might want to just leap directly to option #2 and save yourself the trouble of appearing to go over his head after not liking his answer.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 26 comments… read them below }

  1. Karen F.*

    Oh my, another boss in bad form :P The most likely reaction you could expect is that he will deny what he did (he said/she said kind of position); I agree, the reader would have to go to option number 2, even if it can lead to something ugly…at the very least you know the next interviewee will never have to go through the discomfort again!

    Karen, The Resume Chick (on Google or Twitter if you need me)

  2. Anonymous*

    Option #2 is weasley and ineffective. And AAM has pointed this out many a time with other situations, I think, so I'm kinda surprised to see it mentioned here.

    Making some broad announcement or putting the entire staff through training because of one individual will not solve anything. The culprit never realizes the lessons are directed at them; the lessons blithely sail right over their heads. Meanwhile everyone else suffers through a prolonged reprimand despite having done nothing wrong.

    An effectual manager will face the problem head-on by sitting the Veep down and telling him in clear and unambiguous terms that his questions are inappropriate and will not be tolerated for any reason.

  3. Ask a Manager*

    Anonymous, assuming that the VP is the writer's boss (which was what I was assuming), she can't really tell him that his questions will not be tolerated for any reason, because she doesn't have authority over him. If she weren't nervous about his ability to take feedback, I'd say absolutely she should just talk to him. But given that there's such an easy alternative here, it's worth considering — especially since if he blows her off, that'd need to be the next step, and at that point she'll look like she's intentionally going over his head.

    But I actually do think that there's utility in giving training to anyone doing interviews on this staff, since a LOT of companies don't cover this with their employees and a LOT of people aren't clear on how this works. I'd be surprised if this VP is the only one in the company who doesn't have it quite right, even if no one else is as bad as he is!

  4. Ask a Manager*

    But I should add — if I'm wrong and the writer is the VP's boss, then absolutely she should just address it with him directly and straighforwardly, and in very clear terms. But for some reason it didn't read as a question from his manager.

  5. Paul D*

    An easy way to broach the subject might be to ask the VP why he asked those questions. Interviewers usually ask questions with specific goals in mind, things that they want to discover. So what was the goal behind asking for the candidate's marital status?

    Presumably, given that the OP was asked to sit in on the interview, her feedback is expected anyway. She could casually ask for clarification on this point before going on to mention the potential legal ramifications. And possibly suggesting that the VP checks the situation with HR before his next interview.

  6. Kim Stiens*

    I think that addressing it directly with the manager is a bad idea. If the OP says they don't take feedback well, it doesn't matter how you dress it up, it won't be taken well. If it comes from a junior team member (as it seems it would be in this case), that would just make it worse! HR is definitely the way to go with this. They're the ones most concerned about the legal ramifications, and they can decide independently of the OP if something needs to be done and the best way of going about it (for instance, they'll likely come to the same conclusion as Anonymous, in that they could go to whoever the VP's immediate supervisor is and tell them to address it head on. Or they might go the crew training route. Either way, the concern is where it belongs).

  7. dogfriend*

    I will always remember the interview where the manager (an engineer) asked me if I was married. I was a little stunned that he asked, but replied with a simple "No". He then went on to explain that the reason he asked was because the company had a relocation expenses policy and he wanted to know if they would have to pay for relocating my family if I was hired. Nice.

  8. Anonymous*

    Here's a counterpoint: The boss isn't asking these questions to base his hiring decision. He's asking them to determine if a candidate will stick around.
    A direct version of his question might have been: "assuming you get the job, what's keeping you from leaving this company, packing up and moving across the country on a whim?"

  9. KellyK*

    Anonymous @ 10:51, if "How tied are you to this area/this particular job?" is the quesiton, how about asking *that* question, instead of asking about marriage and kids? That would be more reliable anyway. Marriage implies stability, but it also gives you another person who could be the *cause* of not sticking around (like if your spouse's job moves to another state.)

    Also, if it's to gauge whether the candidate will stick around, then it most certainly *is* something they'd base the hiring decision on. How could using "marriage and children" as a proxy for "stable and reliable" possibly *not* discriminate against a single person?

  10. Anonymous*

    10:51, you have a valid point, however that does imply some discrimination. I recall being passed over for a job when I was quite young by an interviewer who told me (flat out) that his company preferred to hire married people "because they have proven that they are able to make serious commitments." I am sure that many share this misguided view but that is certainly something that would open a company up for some litigation.

  11. Anonymous*

    Just a comment about AAM�s legal note where she wrote �while the act of asking these questions isn't illegal (although many people mistakenly believe that it is), what is illegal (in the U.S., anyway) is rejecting a candidate based on her answers to them.� In some states it is actually illegal to even ask these types of questions.

    The Michigan Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 in section 37.2206 actually states that it is unlawful for an employer to ask questions, either orally or in writing, that elicit information, attempt to elicit information, or express a preference on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, martial status, or disability of a prospective employee.

    You can�t even ask these questions in Michigan, I would imagine that some other states have similar statues. It isn�t necessarily unlawful to ask these types of questions when viewed from a federal standpoint, but it may be so in some states to do so.

    Other than that, I agree, even if it isn't unlawful, it's a stupid thing to do since it may give the perception that you are discriminating based on the candidate�s response to the question, and the burden of proof would be on the employer that the hiring decision wasn't based on the candidate�s responses. Good luck with that in front of a jury.

  12. Kim Stiens*

    Anonymous @ 10:51: I agree with KellyK. If you're asking to determine some kind of job-related idea, you're using it to discriminate in the hiring process. If you weren't, you would ask after you hired them, if it was truly just to determine, informationally, if they were more or less likely to stick around. If you ask before they're hired, you clearly intend to use that information (or the information you think you're getting) to determine if they would be a good or bad hire.

  13. TheLabRat*

    I hope OP updates us on this one. I'm very curious to see how it works out. It could be that VP is just trying to make friendly small talk but given how he asked about the religious activities question, I'm inclined t guess not.

  14. Anonymous*

    Just supporting what Anon. said prior re: legality of the questions, yes it IS illegal to ask these questions, in California as well as Michigan, just a small FYI, AAM. The job candidate should remind them of that fact upon questioning, politely refrain from answering, and if necessary, report the behavior to the ACLU. It isn't about privacy per se, it's a civil rights matter regarding marital status bias, religious bias, etc.

  15. Anonymous*

    Do you really expect AAM to track employment law in all 50 states? Most of us assume she's giving us an overall answer and referencing federal law, not the law in Michigan or Montana or wherever.

    And the ACLU? You'd talk to the EEOC if you wanted to pursue it, not the ACLU.

  16. Charles*

    It sounds like either solution could be a no-win situation:

    Address the boss directly, he blames you, claims that you are not a team player, claims you don't understand how he does things, yada, yada, yada.

    Mention something to HR and he might blame you for "ratting" on him.

    A third solution might be to see if there is someone more senior than yourself, but still within the department, who might be able to handle this. This way the boss will not feel like a subordinate is acting "uppity" nor he will not feel like he is being "betrayed" to HR. Of course, you have to trust this "go-between" to not tell him that you were the source.

    P.S. Anon @ 10:24 and AAM, as a trainer, I have often been asked to put "something" together to address an issue. After I have worked at a company for a while I have found that I get the managers trained pretty well to ask themselves before asking me "Is it a training issue or a management issue?" Real training issues I can help with, management issues should be dealt with by managers.

    I really dislike putting together training programs when the real solution is (as Anon says) address the culprit directly. However, in this case, since it could be a legal issue a refresher course might not be a bad idea in addition to addressing the culprit directly. As long as he is not singled out in the training then it might help him to save face by having all hiring managers and other involved in interviewing to attend something about interviewing/hiring, etc.

  17. Anonymous*

    IME lawyers use borderline questions to gauge the comfort and forthright level of applicants. Any assertion of discrimination was shrugged off, and the case dragged on until the other party ran out of money.

  18. Anonymous*

    "Do you really expect AAM to track employment law in all 50 states?"

    Um, YEAH. That's her job. Giving bad advice is subjective, but giving out untrue information is a major liability.

  19. Kara*

    It's not her job. She's not a lawyer, which she's said in other posts. I for one am damn happy with her advice and think you sound like kind of a jerk.

  20. Anonymous*

    I commented previously about ACLU. You'd contact ACLU if you wished to file suit against the company for civil rights bias/discriminatory practices, Anon @ 8:21PM. My apologies if you failed to catch that. AAM doesn't need to know the laws, but should advise that everyone knows their local laws versus giving a generalized answer that may jeopardize an individual's career/company. My advice to the individual is to learn their local/state laws (just Google them), and helpfully suggest that to the boss. There is no need to give attitude here when all we are trying to do is help out each other. Peace.

  21. Anonymous*

    Okay, Anon @ 12:40pm, please share with everyone what EEOC is, what they do, how they can help, and how long you can expect them to attend to your specific case, rather than just being snotty? I'm not going to get into a "is not/are too" battle with you anymore. Either be helpful, or be off.

  22. Interviewer*

    The ACLU is a privately funded organization dedictated to protecting civil liberties and upholding the Constitution. See here for a list of their favorite causes:

    The EEOC is a gov't agency charged with enforcing employers' compliance with laws against discrimination in the workplace. They conduct investigations and file suits against companies.

  23. Kim Stiens*

    Sooo… either the ACLU or the EEOC would be fine. If the OP wanted to take it that far. Can we be civil again then?

  24. Natalie*

    A bit late, but this is actually relevant: you are required to file a complaint with the EEOC before you can sue your employer/potential employer for job discrimination.

Comments are closed.