By Tracey Paliath, Esq
As a non-practicing lawyer, people approach me all the time with random legal questions. Sometimes these relate to something that happened that upset them and they want to know if they can sue, but most often the questions are about employment law. Particularly now, when the job market is the worst it’s been in decades, people are keenly aware of what’s at stake when they get a job interview, and recognize that they are competing against large numbers of qualified candidates for a single job opening.
I think that’s why I have been getting more questions from people about what legal protections they have in the interview process. For example, a woman named Nancy (not her real name) recently said to me, “I finally got an interview with ABC Company and I’m really excited about it. They can’t ask me about my multiple sclerosis, right? I assume I will need to be standing on the sales floor much of the day, and I don’t want them not to hire me, figuring that I can’t do that, because I think it will be fine.” I reassured this person that it is not permissible to ask in an interview if a person has a disability. “That’s what I thought – great news! I’m all set!” she responded.
Though I hated to rain on Nancy’s parade, there were a few things we needed to discuss before she was in the clear. First, I asked her how she was going to respond to the interviewer’s questions about why she had not worked in the past two years, and why she had some other gaps in her resume. “Simple,” Nancy told me. “I’ll explain the earlier gaps by telling them that my son has special needs and has needed me in the past to transport him to multiple medical appointments. I had to work with the school on his behavior issues so I left work to help him and be fair to my employer. I haven’t worked in the past two years because I was laid off, like thousands of other people, and I used the time to address some health issues (which you said they can’t ask me about).”
Although these answers are honest, and undoubtedly worthy of sympathy, Nancy just sabotaged her own interview, and probably lost the job, without the employer asking a single illegal or improper question about her or her child’s disability. She volunteered all the information they needed to rate her negatively, such as questioning whether she will have an attendance problem due to her son’s (and her own) health problems, whether she will stick with the job once hired (since she said she’s had medical problems for two years), and even whether she will cost the company too much money on health insurance.
Of course, because this company wants to obey the law, the way the company’s interviewers will likely use this information is to mark Nancy down in other, subjective areas, such as “would fit in well with our corporate culture” or “demonstrates initiative,” if they perceive that her own and her son’s health issues will be problematic. Even a very compassionate interviewer might still be unable to block the information Nancy volunteered, knowing that if she is absent a lot or even quits, it is going to mean more work for everyone else in the company, not to mention a tremendous waste of resources in Nancy’s training costs. Sadly, Nancy will never know the real reason she didn’t get the job.
Rather than sharing so much personal information about herself, Nancy should listen carefully and answer only the question that is asked. For example, when asked about why she has been out of work for two years, she should talk about how competitive the job market has been with unemployment at the previously unthinkable rates of 9-10% per month to reinforce that there is no reason to shy away from her. She should also talk about what positive things she’s done with her period of unemployment (for instance, taking online classes, volunteering with a favorite organization, or seasonal work in a retail store).
So, for job seekers with special and/or legally protected circumstances, my advice to you is this: don’t rely on the protection of “the law” and the fact that some questions are legally prohibited when you land an interview. You need to think through carefully all aspects of your answers to the many potential, and perfectly legal, interview questions that may be asked of you to make sure that the information you are volunteering in your responses does not wind up eliminating you from consideration for the job. If you need help anticipating questions that may be asked in an interview and preparing answers that will enhance your chances of getting the job, a JCS Career Coach can assist you.
By Tracey Paliath, Esq., Director, Economic Services, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
JCS offers a full range of career services. For more information about JCS Career services click here or call 410-466-9200.