As times get tougher, job interviews can take a discriminatory tack

CHICAGO — CHICAGO -- As unemployment increases, women report they are being asked more and more inappropriate questions in job interviews.

"I've interviewed with various companies and I've been asked questions regarding my marital status, with whom I live and if I own or rent my home," writes a reader. "One company even asked about my religious and political convictions!"


As a result, she sometimes withdraws her job application, but in tough economic times it's a hard decision to make.

Such questions usually are not bona fide occupational-requirement queries and may be illegal under city, state and federal law. Questions about plans to have children, child care and job mobility also may be discriminatory.


"Title 7 of the U.S. Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion and national origin," said Hope Williams, public affairs specialist with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington. "But every case filed with us is considered on a case-by-case basis."

Williams said: "It is not discriminatory to ask about marital status, for instance, if every applicant is asked that question and it's job-related."

However, if you feel you were discriminated against and the company has 15 or more employees, Williams said to file a complaint at the nearest EEOC office within 180 days of the alleged discrimination.

"The EEOC will investigate the complaint, and if there's reasonable cause to believe there's been discrimination in hiring, we notify the employer and job applicant," said Williams. "Then we try to conciliate."

If that doesn't work, the EEOC might litigate the case or you can hire a private attorney, she said.

Women are increasingly more sensitive to discriminatory questions. "They're speaking out against them and are less willing to respond when asked," said Phyllis Macklin, partner in the outplacement firm of Minsuk, Macklin, Stein & Associates in Princeton Junction, N.J.

Macklin, who has a master's degree in public administration and human resource development from Rider College in Lawrenceville, N.J., has been asked those questions, too.

"In 1978, when I was interviewing for a job at an executive-search firm, I was asked what my husband did for a living, would I be able to travel and who would take care of my children," said Macklin. "They had to know whether or not I would be available to travel."


Her reply: "I said, 'I can devote full time to a job, and, in the past, have been able to meet similar job demands.'"

Though Macklin is "outraged that interviewers ask questions that are illegal and inappropriate," she advises job-seekers not to rule the company out if offered a job.

"Assuming you've researched the firm, don't let one insensitive person destroy your opportunity to have an exciting job," Macklin said.

She suggests making notes of illegal questions but points out the importance of looking "beyond the question to understand the motivation. Women are asked if they can travel, but so are men."

Macklin stresses being fully prepared for interviews. "The interview process in itself tends to be intimidating, but don't be defensive," she said. "Expect questions that are not comfortable or legal, have a pat answer ready -- and deliver it with a smile."

But if you're not smiling after the interview and don't get the job, "contact or find some men who also interviewed for the job," suggests Leslie Ann Jones, partner in the Chicago law firm of Johnson, Schaaf, Jones & Snelling. "Or call the man who actually got the job and who is like you but for the fact that you're a woman."


Jones, who received a law degree from Harvard University, an MBA from the University of Chicago and a bachelor's degree in economics from Yale University, said:

"Once you assemble the facts and file a complaint with the EEOC or your state or city human rights department, see a lawyer early on. Don't wait . . . because the trail can get cold very quickly."

The attorney said if you decide against litigation, it's still important "to help build a record for the next woman discriminated against by writing to the head of personnel or the company's top executive and laying out your concerns."

In that way, Jones said, "you might get an answer or you might get a job. And, eventually, if you and other women pursue it, the company will have to stop its discriminatory practices."