(Note: I’m hoping this will be the first in a series of posts related to faculty searches. Hopefully I’ll be able to find time to write more posts soon!)
As most readers of this blog probably know, there is a set of questions that are often referred to as “illegal” questions in the context of a job interview (e.g., questions relating to age, marital status, children, sexual orientation, disabilities, etc.) My understanding is that asking the questions themselves isn’t illegal – it’s acting on that information that is. But, since it’s hard to know if someone acted on the information once it’s received, generally HR departments (and good search chairs, department chairs, etc) do their best to make sure these questions aren’t asked at job interviews.*
But, as many of us have experienced first hand, the “illegal” questions are still asked — pretty frequently, it seems. When I interviewed for faculty positions as a postdoc, I was asked at least one of the illegal questions at each interview. In several cases, the person asking the question was the chair of the search or department. I knew to expect these questions (though was surprised when they came from the chair), but it was still awkward to deal with.
My advice to people asking the questions is obvious: don’t do it. If you actually care about that info, you are unlikely to get accurate answers. And, regardless of whether or not you actually care, you stand a good chance of giving the impression that you do and scaring off people who might be good additions to your department. It also is likely to throw off the candidate, making that person less likely to present his/her strongest side. If a candidate brings up something, answer the specific question, but don’t probe for more info. Otherwise, avoid the topic altogether.
My advice to people who are asked the illegal questions is more complicated. I do agree with Hope Jahren** that it’s fine to lie when answering the questions. I didn’t use this approach when interviewing, but I have in other situations where I’ve been asked inappropriate questions. When I was asked an illegal question on an interview, I usually ended up answering them honestly, but only after fumbling for a bit, as I tried to decide exactly how to answer them. I remember sitting on the plane on the way to my first interview, with a list of questions that I might be asked, thinking through answers. I can no longer remember how I was planning on answering the illegal questions. I think I considered trying to figure out how to somewhat politely point out that it was an illegal question, but I don’t think there’s really a way to do that. So, in the end, I answered them honestly. I do remember that, even though I thought I had prepared to answer them, I still felt thrown off when they were asked. Which brings me back to what I covered in the previous paragraph: asking these questions puts people in awkward situations. There’s no ideal way to answer them. That’s part of why it’s so important that they not be asked in the first place.
Were you asked illegal questions at an interview? How did you handle them? How did you wish you handled them? And what do you do to ensure that job candidates at your university aren’t asked them?
*Several of the places I’ve been have sent lists of these questions to the department ahead of interviews, to make sure people know not to ask these questions. In one case, there was a typo on the list, making it say that it was illegal to ask “How are you?” which I found amusing. Presumably that was supposed to be “How old are you?” Which, yes, is one of the illegal questions I was asked when interviewing for faculty positions. I never took offense, however, when people asked how I was. 🙂
**Hope has revealed herself as the author of this post, and has now started her own blog. It’s definitely recommended reading!
From Jeremy: How faculty search committees really work