A reader writes:
I am a legal assistant/secretary with 18 years of experience. I am in the process of interviewing for a position with several law firms in the small southern city where I currently live. Repeatedly during interviews, I am being asked the following questions: Do you have children? Where do you live? Is your husband in the Army?
My answers are yes, I have one child (he's 10), I currently live on a military post and yes, my husband is in the Army (and has been for 22 years). What I would like to know is whether or not these are legal questions to ask. What, exactly, does the fact that I have a child, the fact that I live on a military post and the fact that my husband is in the Army have to do with the fact that I have 18 years of experience, a solid resume, great references, am well organized, and can type 85 wpm? I am sick and tired of answering these questions. It is my belief that they have nothing to do with how well I can do the job. I am most upset by the question about my husband. Yes, we are an Army family. Yes, we move around every 3 to 5 years. However, other employers have hired me despite the fact that they know I will eventually leave, and have been satisfied with my work product. My husband claims I am being asked this question (about him) because we are in the South, where the wages are lower, the "good-ole-boy" network is strong and where I'm considered an "outsider."
In the meantime, I continue to interview, continue to get asked these questions and continue to become frustrated to the point that I no longer wish to answer these questions. In my opinion, quite frankly, this is not their business. I have 18 years of experience, my resume speaks for itself and I can type like crazy, yet I'm continually asked these questions. Do I have a leg to stand on if I claim that these are illegal questions? I'm asking you because I can't get a single attorney to actually answer this question -- ironic, isn't it?
There's a widespread but incorrect belief that these sorts of questions are illegal. The act of asking them actually is not illegal. What can be illegal is rejecting you based on your answers to them. Therefore, since employers aren't permitted to factor in your answers, there's no point in asking them and smart interviewers, or interviewers who have ever spoken to a lawyer for more than two minutes, don't ask them.
So how do you handle it if an interviewer asks you one of these questions? Educating the interviewer on employment law probably isn't going to endear you to them. Instead, figure out what the question is getting at, and answer that instead. If you think an interviewer is concerned that you'll leave the job when your husband gets transferred, speak directly to that: "I can commit to the job for at least several years." If you think they're concerned that parenthood will get in the way of your job performance: "There's nothing that would interfere with my ability to work the hours needed and get the job done."
That said, something about the specific questions you're being asked, combined with your husband's take on it, make me think that these interviewers aren't necessarily worried and trying to screen you out on illegal grounds, but rather are making small talk and not realizing that they're treading on risky ground. There's no way to know for sure, but there's a decent chance that the questions in this particular context are harmless, not factoring into the hiring decision, and just the product of interviewers who aren't sensitive to the law in this area. It's certainly your prerogative to make an issue out of it, but on a practical level, I think you need to decide if it's a battle you feel like fighting or not.