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Improper Questions:
Job Interviews and Discrimination

BY LILY GARCIA  |  Special to washingtonpost.com

As a job candidate, it's likely that at some point an interviewer's question will rub you the wrong way -- or worse, some questions are illegal and simply cannot be asked.

Federal laws protect job candidates against discrimination based on sex (including family obligations and pregnancy), religion, national origin, age and disability. A combination of federal and state laws governs the consideration of arrest records in hiring decisions.

In short, as a job candidate, you have rights you shouldn't forego during the interview process. Here, I've collected examples of interview questions you should avoid answering -- and ways you might handle them if asked.

Admittedly, it's difficult to know for sure if you're being discriminated against. Some people will ask illegal questions outright; others will beat around the bush. If an enthusiastic interviewer turns icy when you mention a child, that could be a tipoff. Another warning sign might be cryptic feedback about why you didn't get a job you were confident of winning.

If you think you were the victim of discrimination, consider yourself lucky that you weren't hired by such a place -- and report your concerns to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the agency responsible for enforcing the employment laws of your jurisdiction, usually called "Human Rights Commission" or "Department of Fair Employment Practices."

Lily Garcia, author of washingtonpost.com's How to Deal column, has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail lilymgarcia@gmail.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

All in the Family

They can't ask...

... whether you have, or plan to have, children. Even if a job requires you to work long or odd hours, it is your business how you meet those obligations and an interviewer cannot ask "How will you balance your job and your kids?" Likewise, an employer may not base its hiring decision upon your real or imagined plans to start a family.

But they can ask...

... whether you can keep the schedule needed to get the job done, as many jobs have strict or unpredictable working hour requirements.

Losing Your Religion

They can't ask...

... virtually any questions about your religion. Even well-meaning ones about your place of worship from people who are your neighbors are off-limits.

But they can ask...

... about it if you are applying for a job for which religion is essential, such as minister or rabbi.

They can also ask if you are available to work weekends and holidays if that is essential to the job. Still, federal law entitles you to a reasonable accommodation of your religious practices, which may include taking certain days off, taking prayer breaks or the flexibility to swap days with a co-worker.

Unless there is a good reason why a prospective employer cannot be flexible about your schedule, the need to take time for religious observance alone cannot disqualify you for a job.

Do I Detect an Accent?

They can't ask...

... even seemingly innocuous questions about your interesting accent or your unusual name. Ethnicity and national origin are out of bounds.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of such an inquiry as, "Where are you from?", play dumb. Perhaps your family emigrated from Peru, but you can also be "from" Northeast Washington or Minneapolis or the South. Answer the question as if it were harmless small talk and give the interviewer an opportunity to steer clear of a subject that could get them in trouble.

If the interviewer asks, "Do I detect an accent?" reply good-naturedly that he or she does -- then deflect further inquiry into your cultural background by asking a job-related question or making a point about your professional background. That's the only background an employer should be considering.

But they can ask...

... if you are legally authorized to work in the United States.

Medical Matters

They can't ask...

... whether you have a disability, or inquire into the medical condition underlying any disability you may have. A question like, "This is a strenuous job requiring that you be on your feet for several hours at a time. You don't happen to have any knee or back problems that would make that a problem for you?" should have you thinking twice about how you respond.

But they can ask...

... if you can perform the job's specific requirements. If you have a disability that is obvious to an observer -- if, for example, you use a wheelchair -- or you volunteer to an interviewer that you have a disability, then they may ask whether you would need an accommodation in order meet the job's essential requirements.

If you are otherwise the best qualified candidate for the job, federal law requires that an employer provide you with a reasonable accommodation (one that would not impose an undue hardship on the employer) to allow you to meet the job's requirements. An accommodation might include an ergonomic workspace arrangement, a provision for regular medication breaks or a TTY device.

As a result, they are allowed to ask about the accommodation you'd require so they can determine if they can provide it without unreasonable cost to the business.

Crime and Punishment

They can't ask...

... whether you have been arrested -- in many cases, anyway.

Several states have passed laws restricting the use of arrest records in hiring decisions. Some prohibit the consideration of any arrests not resulting in convictions, whole others make it illegal for employers to consider arrest or conviction records that have been expunged.

Also, because it has been statistically demonstrated that some racial and ethnic groups are arrested with greater frequency than others, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cautions that a policy of using arrest or conviction records alone to disqualify an applicant for a job might violate federal discrimination laws. Perhaps for this reason, many states have passed laws prohibiting discrimination in the use of arrest or conviction records in the hiring process.

But they can ask...

... whether you have been convicted of a crime -- again, in many cases.

Some states limit the consideration of conviction records to felonies or offenses directly related to a job's requirements. If you have been convicted of a crime, generally an employer may decide against hiring you if they determine that hiring you is too great of a risk to the business or the work environment (for example, an applicant for an accounting job who has been convicted of embezzlement, or an applicant for a delivery service who has been convicted of reckless driving may both be disqualified).

If you have been convicted of a crime and the subject comes up during the interview, deal with it forthrightly and explain the extenuating circumstances. Don't ever lie. (Even if it doesn't come up during an interview, it's likely to be found out during the background check process.)

Having an arrest or conviction on your record might disqualify you for the job. Being caught in a lie definitely will.

Counting the Candles

They can't ask...

... how old you are in almost any case.

But they can ask...

... when you graduated from college; perhaps they'd like to know how many years of experience you have if that is not clear from your resume.

They can also ask about your age as pertains to a job's essential requirements -- if, for example, you are old enough to serve alcohol if you are applying for a restaurant job.

Older job applicants are sometimes concerned that they will be excluded from consideration because of their age and therefore leave high school and college graduation dates off of their resumes. This might not be the best policy.

Instead, display your years of hard-earned experience proudly, discussing accomplishments you've managed and skills you've learned over time. You will then be more likely to encounter interviewers astute enough to recognize and value the unique attributes of a seasoned worker.

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