Monday, December 15, 2008

Feminist Dilemma: Illegal Interview Questions

As much as I love freelancing, I am also searching for a full-time position. Yes, I know it is foolish to trade working in my pajamas and setting my own schedule for a guaranteed income, but what can I say - I'm crazy that way. So, this means I'm interviewing - and I recently had one interview that, well, posed a question: what do you do if you're asked an illegal question during an interview?

Here's how it went. I was back for a second interview at an advertising and design company - and the first interview, with the Executive Director, had gone really well. Seriously, he loved me. Now I was back, speaking with the more junior-level guy who would be my direct supervisor if I were to take the position. This second interview was not going so well, partially because guy started this way:

Guy: So, how long have you been married?
Me: Just over a year now.
Guy: Do you have any kids?
Me: No.
Guy: (Expectant pause.)
Me: (Thinking - !?!?)
Guy: (Expectant pause.)
Me: (Thinking - ... he isn't legally allowed to ask me if I plan on having kids, is he? Is that why he's waiting, he wants me to talk about my plans for my uterus? I don't even know my plans for my uterus - and even if I did, it would be illegal for him to ask me about my uterus in an interview. Wait... is my confusion showing on my face?)
Guy: (Expectant pause.)
Me: I really enjoyed the tour of your new production studio, is that where you filmed the...?

Other than that, the only weird thing about the interview was that he seemed to be feeling around about how long I plan on living in Atlanta - lots of questions like 'Do you like Atlanta?' and 'Do you have any family nearby?' - but whether or not I plan to stay put seems like a fair thing for a company to want to know, right? He didn't come back to the baby question and neither did I, but it made enough of an impression that when asked about the interview later that night, I responded, "I don't know - it was a little weird."

As it turns out, I was asked more than one illegal question. An employer can't legally ask "do you have kids" in an interview, nor can she ask about your marital status or your residential history in the region/country. Of course, knowing that these questions are illegal doesn't mean that I'll now know what to do the next time one is asked. So - I put the question to you:

As good feminists, what should we do if a potential employer asks about our marital status or family plans? Do you point out that these are illegal questions in hopes of keeping the employer from being jerk to future female interviewees? Do you answer? Do you change the topic? Do you phone your attorney?

UPDATE: As public interest lawyer Jake Aryeh Marcus pointed out in the comments, these questions are not technically illegal in many states! As Women's eNews explains:
Only 22 states and Puerto Rico specifically prohibit employers from inquiring about applicants' marital status. That means "maternal profiling" is a real problem for many women.
Yeah, you bet it's a problem! I'm interested in knowing how many of our readers have similar stories - have you been asked about your gender, marital status, or family plans in an interview?


Maggie said...

Tough questions. I think it would probably depend on the situation and my rapport with the person asking.

I definitely think that whether you get the job or not, you should contact the first interviewer and let him know that the second one asked some questions he shouldn't have. Of course, you'd probably want to make it clear that you're sure it was unintentional, but that you didn't want it to create any problems for their hiring in the future. said...

i think a good, "why do you ask?" would be a nice response. it's good to answer questions you don't want to answer with another question.

Feminist Review said...

I agree with Maggie. The company should be made aware that their employees are opening them up fora lawsuit. It's possible that this guy didn't realize he's not allowed to ask those questions, and if that is the way you approach it, in a "I really like your company and therefore felt I should protect it" kind of way then it might actually work in your favor, because it shows you have investment in the company before you're even hired.

I have been asked these types of questions and I simply inform the interviewer that what they're doing is illegal (using the same "I care about you" strategy as above), which tends to get them to change the topic very quickly.

Obviously the backfiring is that it could strike you off the list of being hired, but do you really want to work for a company that would do that anyway?

As for phoning an attorney, unless the interview is taped and you don't get hired and you know that the person who DID get hired is a dude with no kids, no marriage, and a long-term plan to remain in the ATL, it's probably not worth your time. :)

DJ Dual Core said...

Interviewer: [illegal question]

Applicant: I'll make a deal with you. You tell your boss I gave the desired answer to that question and I don't tell your corporate legal counsel that you asked it. OK?

Pockysmama said...

The best way I've found to lessen these sorts of questions is to make everything an "I" statement. I moved here..., I live..., I'm from..., etc. I don't mention family whatsoever and give the interviewer little room to mention it either. I also remove ALL jewelry before an interview.

Jake Aryeh Marcus said...

Actually this question is not illegal in every state. :( Here is one piece on what has come to be called "maternal profiling": I have been a lawyer for twenty years in a state which recently failed to pass a law forbidding this discrimination.

Maggie said...

I wasn't sure what laws applied when I read about this. What I did find refers mostly to EEOC and federal law. I was curious about how the states were involved, so thanks for the heads up.

habladora said...

Wow, I assumed that these so-called 'illegal questions' were, in fact, illegal. It turns out, you're right:
Although they're called "illegal interview questions" on the Web, it's important to note that a question may not be illegal to ask per se. But if an interviewer asks a question that has discriminatory implications and then intentionally denies you employment based on your answer to the question, he or she may have broken the law.

Thanks for the Women's eNews article - now if there were just a lawyer willing to do a post on this issue for us... (hint hint)

Jake Aryeh Marcus said...

Sadly, the EEOC and the federal law governing sex discrimination (the Civil Rights Act of 1964) looks a lot better than they are. The court decisions interpreting what is meant by "sex discrimination" are infuriating and counter-intuitive. The Supreme Court has spent most of the years since 1964 making contorted arguments for why discrimination obviously about sex is not really about "sex."

Gotta love that piece cited in this blog entry. Sheesh! The world doesn't need more HR professionals who can successfully hide discriminatory practices. Ick.

Ojibway Migisi Bineshii said...

I went to a private school for my graduate school that I am paying for not my parents. I moved back home with my parents after graduate school because of being completely broke financially. They live in a middle class suburb of Detroit. They are the last remnants of blue collar folk that reside here as this place has become really hip and has changed from blue collar to more a white collar suburb. So if you are from this suburb people think you are wealthy. I went on an interview at a nonprofit organization in Detroit. I sat down and the two ladies started to ask me questions. They looked at my resume and saw that I had earned my Master's from a private school. They then went to ask me, "who is paying for your education, you or your parents?" I was about to walk out of the room but I stayed. I was actually sick that day and had a cold that made me unable to fight back in the way that I would of. Additionally, I was sent on this interview from a staffing agency. After the interview I called the staffing agency and told them what I experienced. They obviously told the people at the nonprofit about what they did wrong.

I feel that as feminists we have a right to not answer to any of these questions regarding martial status, gender or family plans. I have never had a potential employer inquire about me be single. In fact, I have wondered if they look at your hand to see if you are married and if that plays a part in the hiring process.

Daisy said...

And once they ascertain that you DO have children, they ask about child care arrangements... interviewers often sneak this in conversationally, while talking about their own: "My mother-in-law watches our girls, what kind of arrangement do you have?"--like it's just a nicey-nicey social question. But it's their way of trying to figure out how trustworthy your situation is, so they can decide whether they can count on you. For a professional woman, a good way to ferret out your husband's income, too. (if you say you have a nanny, for instance)

I always found it infuriating.

Another Anonymous Poster said...

The two of us have been on the interview trail pretty constantly since late September (well, early November for me), but we've had somewhere around 50 human-days worth of interviews between us in that time. Even as a guy, I get the "do you have kids" question all the time. Perhaps a bit shady, but there's no way I'm going to rock that boat. Anyway, I always deflect with "We have cats. They're much easier to leave alone for a few days while I'm off interviewing." It usually causes a chuckle and then the subject changes.

Jake Aryeh Marcus said...

Here is an interesting blog entry about a study on the "mommy penalty" and the "daddy bonus" as it applies to lawyers: I can't put my hands on the stats right now but I believe this applies in other professions as well. Men with children are hired over other applicants of both genders - it is assumed men with children have reliable caretakers for the children (read: wives) and are more stable employees because of the financial responsibility of having children. Women with children (married or not) are deemed least reliable because they are assumed to be ultimately responsible for childcare.

mithi said...

I would suggest that even if you get the job try and avoid going with it. Because the interviewer already have given you a clue that he is interested in you. Hat's off that you bravely faced these questions.

Sungold said...

Piggybacking on Jake's last comment:

However. In *The Price of Motherhood*, Ann Crittenden found that women as primary caretakers were not the only people who suffered a major financial hit on the job. Men who were visibly involved fathers - for instance, the guy who leaves work an hour early for a kid's soccer game but arrives an hour early to get his work done - take a comparably large hit. has been on the issue of maternal profiling for the past couple of years. The scholarly research I'm familiar with suggests that discrimination against mothers accounts for much of the remaining wage gap between women and men.

Sungold said...

Oh, and Habladora - I think you handled the question quite appropriately: hem and haw and change the topic. So good for you.

I hope you get a decent job working with people who are cooler than this guy!