Here’s how a career expert thinks you should respond
Interviews are supposed to give a potential employer and an employee a chance to get better acquainted, but often the interviewer will try to get to know you a little too well. Have any kids? Want any someday? Go to church around here?
It’s confusing: They could be making small talk, or wondering how much work you’ll miss due to kid stuff. Maybe they just want to know if you’re into Pentecostal snake handling. It’s awkward — but it’s also potentially illegal. Two recent surveys found that interviewers still ask these questions (and others about race, age, and medical history), though for half a century now they’ve put employers at risk of violating the law.
In the first survey, CNBC and the Associated Press polled 1,054 Americans about the nature of their interviews, CNBC reported. Some 35 percent said they had been asked about age in an interview; another 21 percent were asked about their medical history or if they have a disability; 10 percent were asked if they were currently pregnant or planned to become pregnant; while another 10 percent were asked about religious affiliation.
As Sarah Skidmore Sell explains at the Associated Press, asking the question isn’t illegal in and of itself, but if you don’t hire someone because they’re too old, then having asked about age in the interview could be used as proof you discriminated intentionally due to age. Interviewers often have unconscious biases, she notes. “But experts say it typically occurs because the interviewer lacks an understanding of, or training in, the law,” Sell writes. “Interviewers may also accidentally step over the line in an attempt to make conversation, such as asking a candidate who arrives on crutches how they were injured.”
Oh, these? I’m in a violent fight club on the weekends.
The second survey comes from resume-writing company TopResume, which found that 80 percent of the 375 people they surveyed had been asked a question in an interview that made them uncomfortable. The majority of the questions concerned previous salary, age, family planning and marital status. The full results:
· Previous Salary: 66 percent (What did you make in your last job? What’s your current salary?)
· Marital Status: 33 percent (Are you married? What does your spouse do for a living?)
· Kids or Family Planning: 23 percent (How old are your kids? When are you having kids?)
· Age: 23 percent (How old are you? How long do you plan to work before you retire?)
· Nationality, Race, Ethnicity: 14 percent (What country are you from? Are you a U.S. citizen?)
· Disability: 12 percent (Do you have any physical disabilities? Any mental-health problems?)
· Gender or Sexual Orientation: 10 percent
· Military Status: 7 percent (Will you be deployed soon? What about your military discharge?)
· Religion: 7 percent (Will you need time off for religious holidays? What church do you go to?)
· Other: 5 percent
Can you imagine being asked if you have any “mental health problems” in a job interview? Who, me? Well, I’m a bit of a hoarder, and I also have a phobia that makes it hard for me to leave the house.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission forbids discriminating against any applicants or employees for the following protected classes:
· Sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy)
· National origin
· Age (40 or older)
· Genetic information
You can also add salary to this in some places. New York City, in line with an increasing trend across the U.S., just banned asking applicants about their salary history, arguing that past pay could be the result of bias, and that applicants should be offered salaries based on their qualifications.
And yet the asking persists, which puts applicants in a very bad spot. You want to seem open, decent and, most of all, like someone who can hold down a job. Most of us don’t feel like telling a stranger about our kids or a disability—and the law says we shouldn’t have to. But when you’re alone in that room trying to make someone give you a job, the rules may change. And under threat of appearing tight-lipped or uncooperative in some way, applicants may simply give up the goods.
But Amanda Augustine, TopResume’s career advice expert, says we don’t have to do that. “If an interviewer asks you a question about one of these off-limits topics, try to figure out what the person is truly concerned about, and steer the conversation to address those particular concerns,” Augustine tells MEL by email. “For instance, if they ask about your commute, be sure to explain that you are confident you’ll be able to get to the office at the designated start time. Or if you’re asked about your family, you may want to turn it back and ask them about theirs (e.g., family seems important to you — do you have any children?), and work into the conversation that you have a great support system in the area to help you with the kids (assuming the concern is about absenteeism related to child-care issues).”
A second issue is whether to call the employer out on the offending questions and risk alienating them. Say nothing and you feel like you didn’t stand up for yourself. “Keep the conversation as light and friendly as possible, as you don’t want to come off as angry or defensive,” Augustine says, reiterating that the employer may have no idea they’ve broken federal law and could just be being friendly. “If an interviewer asks you a question that is blatantly offensive and a clear violation of your rights, try to skirt the issue as best you can — and then think twice before accepting a position at the company. If this is how they treat their candidates, imagine how they treat their employees.”
Interviewing should be thought of as an audition on both parts, Augustine says, and the hiring manager’s behavior is going to tell you a lot about the working relationship you may have if you take the job. “Use your interview to evaluate the employer in addition to fielding the interviewers’ questions,” she says. Of course, that’s easier said than done when you just really need a job and have to take whatever you can get. But even so, none of us should have to reveal personal information, even for a job we don’t really want.