Sitting Across From a Questionable Query

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 6, 2008; Page K01

Inappropriate or potentially illegal questions pop up in job interviews fairly frequently, experts say. These questions complicate matters for the applicant and the interviewer.

"There are only a couple that are flat-out illegal. The rest fall into categories that may not be technically illegal but raise the suspicion that employer is using [discriminatory] tactics in hiring," said Joseph V. Kaplan, managing partner at Passman & Kaplan, a D.C. law firm that represents workers and unions.

But how to deal with such questions? Here's some guidance:

Clearly Illegal

· Medical and disability queries. The Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits many questions, including those that reveal whether a person has a disability.

"There are many other kinds of medical questions prohibited under this standard," said Sharon Rennert, a lawyer at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Illegal questions include hospitalization, prescription drugs taken or history with a psychiatrist.

Sometimes employers are surprised to see a candidate's disability, so they will ask illegal questions while their guard is down, Rennert said.

Employers can ask whether candidates can do the job or whether they need any "accommodation." They can ask whether candidates can lift 50 pounds or read tiny print if that is needed to do the job, Kaplan said.

· Marital status, family situation. The District, Maryland and Montgomery County outlaw employment discrimination based on whether you're married. In the District and Maryland, the laws add family responsibilities, which include child care and child custody arrangements, said Diane Seltzer, an employment lawyer at the Seltzer Law Firm.

"They think: I'm just getting to know you," she said. But friendly chat can lead to discrimination against women. "Men don't get asked these questions," she said.

Dubious Topics

These interview topics are not illegal, but they raise suspicions about the employer's intent. They could indicate discrimination if the job seeker is well qualified but isn't hired:

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