interviews

Those “illegal job interview questions” aren’t actually illegal

September 22, 2013 Interviews No comments , ,

It’s common knowledge that it’s illegal for US employers to ask about your age, sex, religion, marital status, national origin, or other protected statuses. Thing is, it’s not illegal for them to ask.  It’s illegal for them to discriminate, but it’s not illegal to ask. Still, the idea of the “illegal interview questions” is a common one. Search for “illegal interview questions” on Google and you’ll get 50,000 hits. Lots of blog posts and news articles, but nothing from anyone I see as a legal authority.

I’m certainly not a lawyer, but I feel confident in quoting the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website for this (emphasis mine):

As a general rule, the information obtained and requested through the pre-employment process should be limited to those essential for determining if a person is qualified for the job; whereas, information regarding race, sex, national origin, age, and religion are irrelevant in such determinations.

Employers are explicitly prohibited from making pre-employment inquiries about disability.

Although state and federal equal opportunity laws do not clearly forbid employers from making pre-employment inquiries that relate to, or disproportionately screen out members based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, or age, such inquiries may be used as evidence of an employer’s intent to discriminate unless the questions asked can be justified by some business purpose.

Short version: It’s not illegal to ask those questions, but it’s stupid to do so because it gives the candidate ammo to use in a lawsuit against you.

I think it’s an important distinction. I read plenty of comments on reddit and the like where people seem to think that being asked about their marital status is somehow going to get them a job because that’s an illegal question. It’s not. Other than feeding one’s sense of righteous indignation, there’s not much that will probably come out of being asked an “illegal question.” There has to be a lawsuit for anything to come of it, which means you need to find a lawyer who thinks that you can win a discrimination suit, because the lawyer will be able to prove discrimination.

The key is that you have to prove that you were discriminated against. Simply saying “They asked me an illegal question” isn’t enough. Here’s what a random employment law firm’s website says:

An employee in an employment discrimination and wrongful termination case must prove that the reason he or she was fired, or not hired or not promoted, is because of his or her “protected classification.” In other words, you have to prove that you were denied employment or a promotion because of your race, gender, ethnic background, age or other discriminatory factor.

It’s also important to know that in addition to the Federal laws, you may have rights in other states. For example, some states forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation, while many others do not (yet). Search Google for “discrimination laws [your state]” and you should get hits for your state’s government agency that covers this topic.

None of this is to endorse employers asking such questions. A good employer shouldn’t ask you any questions that aren’t related to the job.

What to do if you’re asked a question that gets at something discriminatory? Check out this article on how to handle bad interview questions.

Rethink the post-interview thank you note

May 15, 2012 Interviews 3 comments , ,

Good golly do people get riled up by the idea of sending a thank you note after a job interview. “Why should I thank them, they didn’t give me a gift!” is a common refrain in /r/jobs.  “They should be thanking me!”

I think the big problem is the name, “thank you note.”  It makes us recall being forced to say nice things about the horrible sweater Aunt Margaret gave us for Christmas.

It’s not a thank you note. It’s a followup. It doesn’t have to be any more than this:

Dear Mr. Manager,

Thank you for the opportunity to meet with you today. I enjoyed the interview and tour and discussing your database administration needs. Based on our discussions with Peter Programmer, I’m sure that my PostgreSQL database administration skills would be a valuable addition to the Yoyodyne team. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
Susan Candidate.

There’s nothing odious there. You’re not fawning or begging. You’re thanking the interviewer for his time, reminding him of key parts of the interview and your key skills, and reasserting that you are interested in the job. (And before you say “Of course I’m interested, I went to the interview!”, know that perceived indifference and/or lack of enthusiasm is an interview killer.)

People ask “Do I really have to do that?” and I say “No, you don’t HAVE to, you GET to.” It’s not a chore, it’s an opportunity.

The nameless “they” and the Facebook & job interview trend that isn’t a trend

April 6, 2012 Interviews 19 comments , , ,

“I’m never eating there again,” he told me. “You know what they do?”

I was standing around at a party twenty years ago, and conversation got around to what our first jobs were. I said that my first job was at the McDonald’s, and someone in the circle looked stricken. “You couldn’t pay me to eat there. You know what they do there?” he asked. “I knew a guy who worked at McDonald’s, and he saw this other guy drop a hamburger patty on the floor by mistake, and he picked it up and put it on a burger and they served it. I’m never eating there again.”

The guy at the party had invoked the nameless “they,” as if McDonald’s tells its kitchen workers it’s OK to observe the five-second rule. Maybe he meant “they” to mean there was a secret cabal of grill workers who create Big Macs with special seasonings from the floor. He took the actions of one worker at one time to be an indicator of a trend. He nursed his horror and made sure everyone else knew about it.

But what if this tale of the dirty burger got on the news? Maybe the story would spread like wildfire across the country, with outraged citizens letting everyone else know about this horror. Maybe pundits would come out with columns excoriating the stupid practice of picking up hamburgers dropped on the floor, and why it’s bad for business. Maybe opportunistic politicians could beat their chests and call for a Justice Department inquest into this alarming trend.

Absurd, right? But that’s exactly what this non-trend of “job interviewers demand your Facebook password” is.

Over the past week, blogs and message boards and, of course, Facebook have been burning up with outrage at this non-trend. People commiserate and shake their heads grimly, imagining being stuck between the rock of having an employer snoop in our Facebook accounts and the hard place not having a job. People turn on Internet Tough Guy mode and imagine their defiance at the scenario, or give their theories as to the legalities of the practice. Business pundits weigh in on why it’s a bad idea.

The original AP news story that sparked this hullabaloo named one candidate, Justin Bassett, citing one interview at one unnamed company. That’s it. Still, it’s been rerun over and over and over. Every article has a similarly declarative headline like “Job seekers get asked in interviews to provide Facebook logins.” That’s as absurd as saying “McDonald’s serves burgers off the floor” because of the story the guy at the party told.

The news media have added non-facts, with one headline calling it a “growing trend”.
The follow-on news stories didn’t help. News media and bloggers snowballed it without doing further research. Even NPR, smarting from Mike Daisey’s fabrications, ran the story saying that “some companies” are asking for Facebook passwords. “Some companies” has as much to back it up as “they,” but it doesn’t sound so bad.

Senators have called on the DOJ and EEOC to launch investigations. (Also disturbing to me is Schumer’s assertion that in the job-seeking process, “all the power is on one side of the fence,” which only helps reinforce that incorrect idea.)

Is it plausible that this practice is widespread, and getting moreso? Sure, it’s plausible. Our privacy erodes every day, and millions of us do it through Facebook willingly. The story has the feel of truthiness. Doesn’t it just seem like the thing that Big Business would do to us? We already piss in cups to prove that we’re drug-free so that we can come in and shuffle paper.

To be sure, there are cited cases in that AP story of employers requiring access to candidates’ Facebook accounts. As Matthew Kauffman points out in his excellent probing of this story, those cases are of law enforcement and corrections departments, where greater scrutiny of candidates is common and expected. “In many of those cases, of course, applicants are also subjected to a full-on psychological evaluation,” Kauffman points out.

Kauffman’s aritcle isn’t alone in being sensible. An article on CNN.com says “The reason you haven’t come across any job interviewers asking for your Facebook password is that the practice is pretty rare.”

But how did this non-story get to this point? You got suckered in and the media ran with it.

When you heard this story, did you even question it? Or did you just forward it and post it as if it was an important life-saving story about there are these gang initiations and how “they” will kill anyone who flashes their lights?

It’s 2012, and we are the media. When we fan the flames of non-issues like this, we become the media that we should seek to leave behind.

Finally, in my job as blogger about employment and job interviews, I would be remiss in not addressing how to deal with a request for your Facebook credentials. I’ve read plenty of comments in threads suggesting walking out of the interview, or lying to the interviewer and saying you don’t have a Facebook account.

Walking out may feel good, as righteous indignation so often does, but it doesn’t help your situation. You give up any chance you had of getting the job. Lying is easily disproven, and. worst of all, requires you to lie.

The best answer is to calmly and respectfully say “I believe it’s best for business to keep business and personal life separate. That’s why I keep my private life private.” You may not get the job, but at least you’ll have been turned down while keeping a strong sense of ethics about you… which is more than you can say for companies that would ask to snoop in your private life.

Stand during phone interviews

March 7, 2012 Interviews 1 comment

Best advice I’ve ever heard about how to handle phone interviews is to stand during the call.

Standing will keep you more alert and focused on the interview. In phone interviews, it’s easy to forget that there’s someone else there even though you can’t see them.

Don’t walk around or pace, either. Keep focused on the task of selling yourself to the interviewer and listening and learning about the company.

How long should it take for an interviewer to get back to me?

February 24, 2012 Job hunting 1 comment

Every few days in the /r/jobs subreddit, someone will ask “It’s been N days since my interview, and I haven’t heard back. When can I follow up?  How long does it usually take?”

Two big lessons here:  1) there is no such thing as “usual” in the job process, and 2) the time to ask about timeframes is before you leave the interview.

Here’s an excerpt from chapter 8 of my book, Land The Tech Job You Love:

[After specifically stating you want the job, ]ask about follow-up. Ask about what the next steps in the process are and when you can expect them to happen. It can be very simple.

You: So, what are our next steps? What timeframe are we looking at?

Interviewer: Well, we’ve got a another week of interviews, and then we look at them as a group, so probably the next two weeks you should hear from us.

You: That sounds fine. If I don’t hear back by the 18th, may I call you? Is this number on your card best?

This part is purely for your benefit, so you may omit it if you don’t really care about waiting. However, if you’re like most people, after a while you’ll wonder “Have they forgotten me? Are they just taking a long time?” There’s no such thing as a “usual” amount of time it takes to hear back, so it’s up to you to ask before you leave. This is also a good time to ask for a business card, if you haven’t already been offered one, to make sure you have all the contact information you need.

Be sure to get a specific day, rather than “a couple of days.” As I posted last week, “a couple of days” may mean very different things to you than to the interviewer. Leaving it at “couple of days” is too vague, and leaves you wondering “How many days did he mean?”