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Answering Inappropriate or Illegal Questions

Illegal And Discriminatory Questions

On the one end of the spectrum, some interviewers may ask questions that are illegal. These have to do with how you have benefited from affirmative action, your plans to have children, or your reasons for belonging to a minority organization. When it comes to such illegal questions and remarks, we have seen it all. There was the infamous comment to a student of a Lebanese origin about “those Ay-rabs,” and a lengthy diatribe about the sinfulness of gay marriage to a student who had clearly noted on his resume that he belonged to an LGBT association. Or what about the interviewer who asked an Albanian student whether she could do something to get rid of her “distracting” accent, or the interviewer who actually asked an African-American candidate whether she was “really a minority” because of the light color of her skin. And then there was a student who had her offer withdrawn after she told the firm she was pregnant. ("We hired you for a summer associate position, and because you are due in the middle of the summer, there was never a meeting of the minds.”)

Of course, whether a given question is illegal or not may depend on the context in which it is asked. If a hiring partner jokingly asks a very tall Caucasian male candidate about whether he went to his Big 10 school on a basketball scholarship, such a question may well be innocuous. On the other hand, if a similar question is asked of an African-American applicant of any height, it would be borderline illegal at best.

Most law firms that regularly recruit new attorneys have annual “refreshers” at the beginning of their recruiting season, in which either a human resources manager or an employment lawyer reminds the interviewer about their guidelines for asking questions. IN general, questions that should not be asked under any circumstances include those pertaining to a candidate's race, religion, nationality, age, gender, and family status, as well as any other innate characteristics that have no relation to any bona fide job qualification. No matter how diligent their efforts, however, there are always a few bad apples who just do not learn.

During an interview with a “family-oriented” firm, the hiring partner asked Ursula about her American-sounding last name (Ursula had an obvious German accent). Unprepared for this question, Ursula admitted that this was her married name. Seeing this as an invitation to pry, the partner proceeded to ask about her husband, whether they had children, and whether her parental responsibilities would allow her to join a busy law practice. Ursula explained that she was once married but was now divorced, and a single mother to a small child. A week later she received a rejection from the firm. The letter came as a shock to her and everyone else—Ursula was bright, personable, and at the top of her class at a good law school. In fact, every other employer she interviewed with had made her an offer. Ursula got suspicious and did some digging. Through a contact at the firm, she found out that the firm did not hire her because of her “family issues.” Of course, it was improper for the partner to ask about her family, even though technically she “volunteered” she had one. But it was her honest answer that cost her an offer.

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