Interviewers face a minefield of forbidden questions

Tallahassee Democrat, Sep. 4, 2002
By Tiffini Theisen

ORLANDO – Renee Zines expected to be asked about her typing skills and office experience when she applied for a clerical position.

But she was stunned when her interviewer at the podiatrists’ office also handed her a 200-question personality test.

Some of the questions seemed harmless, if goofy, such as: “Do you often sing or whistle just for the fun of it?” Others offended the Melbourne woman, such as questions about her moods, her eating and spending habits, how many friends she has, whether she likes to gossip or steal things, whether she has pondered suicide and the number of children she plans to have.

Experts say such tests – or any overly personal questions asked of job applicants – are rarely appropriate, and they may even be illegal.

Companies cannot ask applicants things about their private lives that have nothing to do with the job. For instance, asking prospective employees about their nationality or ancestry, how old they are, whether they’re married or whether they’re disabled or have health problems are all taboo.

The test that Zines took was the Oxford Capacity Analysis, a questionnaire created by the Church of Scientology that some employers use to screen applicants. This and similar tests became common in the early 1990s but have dropped off because of controversy and the tight labor market. Today, roughly one in five employers still uses them, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Zines said she faked her answers and later decided she would never work for a company that requested such private information.

“I felt that I was being violated,” said Zines, 25, now a sales assistant for a telecommunications firm. “I thought the questions were really personal. … Those questions have nothing to do with working at a podiatry clinic.”

Companies that cross the line into personal territory risk expensive legal action.

Interview questions are illegal if they seek to classify applicants based on categories protected under anti-discrimination laws, including race, national origin, religion, age, disability or marital status.

But the illegal questions are seldom as dramatic as those headline-grabbing legal cases. Instead, managers may blurt out no-no questions during interviews because they are simply making conversation or unaware that they’re verboten.

Behind many of these gaffes is a genuine business concern. A manager who asks a woman whether she is married or has children may worry about excessive absences. A boss who wants to know an applicant’s religion may be trying to find out whether he can work on Saturdays.

The key to handling these situations – for both interviewers and job applicants – is to steer the conversation to topics that are strictly work-related.

For instance, instead of asking, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” interviewers should ask, “Are you authorized to work in the United States?” Instead of asking, “How old are you?” they should ask, “Are you at least 18?”

Some job applicants may have to do this rephrasing for interviewers. If asked about child-care arrangements, for example, an applicant can say, “If you’re wondering whether I’ll be able to work late some nights during busy times, that won’t be a problem at all.”

In most cases, interviewers are just curious, not trying to discriminate against people, said Matthew DeLuca, author of “Best Answers to the 201 Most Frequently Asked Interview Questions” (McGraw-Hill, $11.95).

“They’re inexperienced, or they’ve been burned before and this is a way to address it,” said DeLuca, who is also a human resources professor at New York University.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday September 8, 2002.
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