Ask Not

In January, the national unemployment rate hovered near 10 percent, yet experts predict 2011 may be the year employers say, “You’re hired.” Before hearing those words, job applicants will need to interview, but if they hear questions about race, health, age, or marital status, then they’re hearing illegal inquiries under federal discrimination laws.

Take for example: “Do you have children?” While the intention for such an inquiry could be an employer’s concern that family obligations will trump long work hours, the question’s wording doesn’t reveal that objective. The intention “could be to work against women,” says Deborah Howard, a University of Evansville professor of law and director of legal studies. “The safest route is to stay away from those questions.”

Still, alternatives exist. “Are you available to work overtime?” The wording of the question shows the neutral intention is to check a potential employee’s availability, Howard says. It’s more than semantics; it’s about an employer showing he or she wants the best person for the job. “If you keep your questions job-related, they are probably going to be defendable,” Howard says.

Knowing what questions are illegal — such as “How much do you weigh? How far is your commute? How many sick days did you take last year?” — could cost the applicant more than the employer. “That’s awkward if you point out, ‘That’s an illegal question,’” Howard says. “You may try to redirect about your skills, but if you don’t answer the question, you’ve probably killed your chances of being hired.” Plus, with a tough market, businesses have more leeway, she says, so while the questions may be illegal, it is hard to enforce. For job seekers, though, if an employer asks the right questions, he or she demonstrates the commitment to find the best employee possible, and that’s a good indication the business is a place worth working for.

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