Take the 2-minute tour ×
The Workplace Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for members of the workforce navigating the professional setting. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In the United States, it is considered discriminatory to consider certain things about a candidate when hiring, unless that thing is actually relevant to that job. Specific to this question, a person's marital/parental status is one of these things.

Nonetheless, I heard something like the following in a job interview (from the HR person(!), before talking with the hiring manager): "We want employees who will be staying with our company a while and married people tend to do that. I don't see a wedding ring on your finger, and I know I am not supposed to ask this, but are you married or engaged?" I think my response was just to tell the interviewer my status and move on. However, I felt that was unsatisfactory. Can anyone suggest a better way of handling something like this so that I do not exclude myself from consideration?

share|improve this question
48  
Report them (to their HR department? Local EEOC office? Not sure who should get the report). This person even knew they were asking a question that's out of bounds and they did it anyway. As for how to handle it in the interview, I would just say "that's not relevant to the position, and as you stated yourself it's not a question that I should be asked." That may torpedo the interview, but at that point I probably wouldn't want to work for someone so blatantly disregarding the law like that. –  alroc Jan 16 '13 at 16:43
10  
@kevincline, it is not specifically prohibited. However Pre-Employment Inquiries and Marital Status. –  Stephen Jan 16 '13 at 17:00
3  
As a hiring manager I'd have been raked over the coals by HR for asking. The legality of the question may vary, but it's generally accepted that you don't ask. –  Stephen Jan 16 '13 at 17:05
5  
@Chad - I don't think you're factoring reverese discrimination cases. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers may not discriminate based on race, sex, gender, religion, or national origin, irrespective of who the victim of discrimination might be. –  JeffO Jan 16 '13 at 18:25
4  
The "I know I'm not supposed to ask" makes all the difference, because it clearly shows that this is not some innocent slip-up. If you're legally not supposed to ask, then, like, don't do it. I have the impression that this H.R. person may have been asked by someone in the company to try to gather that information, and feels uncomfortable doing it. I would say, "Eek, did someone pressure you into asking that of applicants? I will tell you anyway, but please inform that person that it is a poor idea which is not going unnoticed." –  Kaz Jan 16 '13 at 22:14

7 Answers 7

up vote 118 down vote accepted

Can anyone suggest a better way of handling something like this so that I do not exclude myself from consideration?

An easy way is to deflect questions like this is asking clarification or simply answering their concerns without the specific question.

We want employees who will be staying with our company a while and married people tend to do that. I don't see a wedding ring on your finger, and I know I am not supposed to ask this, but are you married or engaged?

Answering directly this part of the question would be most appropriate. Something like:

  • "I have remained with my previous company for XX years as you can see from my resume. I have no problems committing to a single company for an extended period of time"
  • "I take care to separate my personal and professional life, but I can assure you I intend to stay with your company regardless as to my marital status"
  • "I think can address your concerns by the following: ..."

The point is to not jump to a hostile reply (assuming you still want to be in consideration for this position).

I suspect this will satisfy most interviewers.

People being interviewed think "oh no, going to torpedo my chances if I don't answer directly!!!!!" when in all reality, the HR person probably hardly cares if they get the feeling you aren't going to bail after 6 months.


Disclaimer: real answer ends here. Use the following at your own risk.

  • "It gets complicated when you have three wives so I normally don't wear a wedding ring."
  • "What? I have worn it every day since getting married - I must have lost it somewhere here! Can you help me find it?"
  • "My wife/husband was killed in a car accident two months ago..."
  • "I'm single, actually... are you asking me on a date? I'm free Friday night."

Or declare yourself unmarried, then file a lawsuit if you don't get the job for discrimination.

share|improve this answer
5  
Disclaimer aside, great answer! –  Stephen Jan 16 '13 at 18:14
40  
The non-answers crack me up. –  bethlakshmi Jan 16 '13 at 18:21
19  
Answer aside, great disclaimer. Hey maybe she is asking me out. You never know. –  Fixed Point Jan 16 '13 at 22:20
1  
@RandyE it's not necessarily against the law to ask this question according to this. However. It is against the law to discriminate using marital information which is why this question is very, very dumb to ask as an employer interviewing candidates. –  enderland Jan 17 '13 at 19:18
2  
Very good answer. You don't need to display your personal life, but you need to convince them that you are a reliable person... There are 1000 ways to answer the question beneath the question, without answering the question. On the other side of the desk, the recruiter will probably "ask without asking". Anyway you WILL have to answer a question about private and professional life. –  Yves Jan 17 '13 at 23:53

"...and I know I am not supposed to ask this, but are you married or engaged?"

I believe that the correct answer would have been something along the lines of:

"You are correct, you are not supposed to ask."

You don't have to be quite so direct and blunt, phrase it any way you'd like. Not going for confrontational here, but I think it's appropriate and important to establish your position.

  1. I know what you're asking is questionable/illegal.
  2. I'm not willing to possibly break the law.
  3. I'm not willing to compromise my ethics.

But you might want to sidestep the question and go on to reassure them of your long term goals, hopes and expectations. This may help reassure them of a commitment from you. However you have no obligation to disclose this information to them.

In all honesty anything but a direct answer to the question is probably going to get you kicked out of the queue for consideration. If it's so important to them that they are willing to risk legal action just by asking then they want an answer.

The bottom line, if they are so willing to flaunt their disregard for such a fundamental and basic practice; what other legalities would they be willing to ignore?

You might want to reconsider working/associating with them.

share|improve this answer
10  
Direct confrontation on this issue is not the best approach if you want to remain in consideration. You want to avoid being remembered as argumentative or hostile. –  enderland Jan 16 '13 at 18:16
10  
@enderland, I agree with you. But bottom line is that you've been asked a potentially illegal question. In this case the only answer that would really keep you in the running would be a direct answer to the question. But by answering directly you are also showing your potential employer that you are just as willing to disregard the rule of law. You may keep yourself in the running, but you've also just shown them that you are perfectly willing to compromise your ethics. –  Stephen Jan 16 '13 at 18:22
3  
My understanding is this is not actually illegal to ask, but opens the company up to a discrimination can of worms (ESPECIALLY if the person answers "single" and then doesn't get the job, as in this situation) because discrimination based on that information is illegal. –  enderland Jan 16 '13 at 18:27
4  
I'd suggest "You are correct, you are not supposed to ask. Are you sure you want the liability of having me answer that?". But I tend towards the sarcastic in general. –  Bobson Jan 16 '13 at 22:00
4  
@Stephen It is not illegal (or unethical) to answer the question. It does not even suggest you are comfortable with the violation. If you are uncomfortable with the possibility that an adverse employment decision was made on the basis of your truthful answer to an illegal question you can discuss it with a lawyer. –  emory Jan 17 '13 at 3:08

You're always free to share whatever you want to share, but should never feel pressured to provide info that could be discriminatory. If you felt like answering with the details of your personal life - the choice is yours.

If you'd prefer to avoid that, since it CAN be discriminatory - answer the concern, but not the question:

Let me reassure you, I'd also prefer a long-term association provided we work together well. It fits well with my personal life, and it looks like a place I'd be happy in for a long time because of XYZ good things about the company. The only reason I'd consider leaving is ABC potential issues - do you have any thoughts on whether that would be a problem?

And I'd skip having one of "ABC potential issues" being - "you flout US law by asking inappropriate and discrimantory questions about my personal life, are there any other laws you violate?" - true as it may be... it's rather a non-starter in terms of getting off on the right foot with a potential boss/coworker.

Depending on the nature of the interview and your overall personal feelings of connection to the interviewer, it may be worth your while to mention it to your HR liason or whoever seems to be coordinating the interview agenda. It should be OK to say to that person:

Just so you know - I was asked a question that I found off-putting. The interviewer asked about my martial status. He seemed to indicate that it's not typical company policy. I wasn't quite sure of what to say, since I honestly believe it's none of his business. I did my best to address the overall concern - my commitment to staying in the company long-term - but felt pretty uncomfortable with the whole thing.

At this point, you're testing them - subtly. It's about the kindest heads up you can give them that one of their employees is opening them up to potential litigation - you've been honest, non-threatening, and truly concerned because you are a team player and a decent person - not some jerk in it for a lawsuit.

What I'd be looking for in this situation is to hear back in a week a reasonable response from the representative I talked to. If they are smart, they'll do something along the lines of:

  • send an honest apology and a job offer because they liked you and want to hire you

  • send an honest apology and ask you to reinterview with a different person - probably because they really couldn't trust the interview process at that point

If they try to ignore it or sweep it aside, you have to wonder if other legitimate legal concerns will also get similar treatment. If they don't hire you, chances are good that you'll never know why, and it's your call whether you want to follow up with a laywer and a lawsuit. But at least you showed them who you are - someone who wanted to be part of the company, but who wasn't willing to overlook a potentially serious issue just to please management.

In all honesty - I'm not sure what I'd do either. It's hard to have the presence of mind to pull this off eloquently in the moment. It's much easier when you are sitting in privacy typing an answer to a Stack Exchange. :)

share|improve this answer
3  
@bethlakshmi plus, for all we know, the HR person was having a terrible day or was stressed out or interviewing for their first time and after saying that immediately thought to themselves, "oh @#%#@ did I really just say that? I can't believe I just did that. @#%@#." or something similar. We've all said things in interviews we immediately go "wtf did I say that for." –  enderland Jan 16 '13 at 19:00
6  
I was going to suggest just looking at the interviewer and not saying anything. This is a technique I learned from the military. However, if you really want the job I like 'answer the concern not the question' better, so I just upvoted this answer. –  Jim In Texas Jan 16 '13 at 20:58
1  
Confronting your interviewers is a dumb move. You don't get the job, and they don't change their practices. Play it smart, get the job, then talk to the HR department later: "Hey, something I've been meaning to ask...did you really mean to ask about my marital status? That put us both in an awkward spot there..." –  Steve Bennett Jan 17 '13 at 1:03
1  
My personal experience has been that something like this often signals other issues - once I see something like this, it usually gets me thinking about what else may be a concern. Granted, I've never been on a really desperate job hunt. And I strongly favor sticking with a job for 3-5 years - so if I'm going to leave a place I like, for a better opportunity, I'm looking for STRONG signals that it's a place I want to work... the place has to prove itself to me. Not the other way around. –  bethlakshmi Jan 18 '13 at 16:06

Use the opportunity to demonstrate your tact, diplomacy and professionalism:

"Well, I wouldn't want to put you in an awkward position by discussing my marital status explicitly, but what I think you're asking is, am I going to stick around? Am I someone worth investing time and resources in, or am I still shopping around for the right career? And the answer is, yes: [elaborate on reasons why, how committed you are, what your resume demonstrates...]"

share|improve this answer
3  
This is simply a restatement of the existing answer from @enderland. –  Joshua Drake Jan 17 '13 at 20:33

This is what I would say:

"I'm single."

Then close my mouth.

As a job hunter, you should be on the look out for red flags in your employer too. Do you really want to work for a company that blatantly breaks the rules and/or laws to get some information out of you? You should report this particular HR interviewer's actions to his boss, regardless if you get the job or not, depending on how much it bothered you.

share|improve this answer
  • Small privately owned business
  • HR person asking a qustion she knows she shouldn't ask and who seems uncomfortable asking (Or that disclaimer about I know I shouldn't be asking this would not have come into play)

What this says to me is that the owner is likely dictating the question and he is showing his predjudices clearly. For whatever reason, he doesn't want to hire single people unless they are properly engaged as that is the only legitimate reason to be single. This indicates to me that he is a person who believes that only one lifestyle is appropriate and that anyone who differs with him is not going to do well in that company.

I am single and I have seen a lot of this prejudice against people being single and around here (I live in a very conservative area), it is almost always related to the owner having religious beliefs that gays were unacceptable and anyone not married by a certain age must be gay.

It screams out to me that the owner wants to dictate your private life be lived only on his terms. It is a clue that he doesn't care about discrimination, he is more than willing to intimidate his HR person into asking questions she has probably advised him he can't ask (and note he had someone else do it so he wouldn't be the responsible person) and who knows what other legal issues he will want you to break in the name of his profit. This is also the type of person who will expect you to share his political and religious views. It screams to me that this is a company to be avoided at all costs.

I would have looked her straight in the eye and told her that the interview was terminated as I would not work for a company with such poor ethics. Then I would have left.

share|improve this answer

I would politely decline an answer while passing the question back to them with, "Do you mind if I do not that answer that?" and then I would begin to consider if I really want to work there. When you are interviewing with them, you are still an outsider. If the impression they convey to an outsider is "We know this is illegal, but let's give it a try anyway", I would be seriously concerned about accepting an employment with them. Who is to say how many other employment laws they are willing to "experiment" with?

Can anyone suggest a better way of handling something like this so that I do not exclude myself from consideration?

Remember that the purpose of interview is two-fold:

  1. Company tries to evaluate if the candidate is good for their job.
  2. Candidate tries to evaluate the company to see if he/she wants to work there.

Do not forget the 2nd point! You should really be the one who should be excluding them from consideration.

share|improve this answer
1  
Why 2 downvotes? If a company violates the law while being aware of what they are doing, one should not even consider seeking employment there. Are you saying this is wrong? Please explain. –  Happy Jan 18 '13 at 6:34
1  
It doesn't really answer the question which specifically states Can anyone suggest a better way of handling something like this so that I do not exclude myself from consideration? –  enderland Jan 22 '13 at 14:32
1  
FWIW, I met with the HR guy first and at the point I faced this question, I didn't know if I was dealing with an entire company with problems or a single rogue HR representative. While the latter would not be good, it would not necessarily indicate an unacceptable job. –  GreenMatt Feb 13 '13 at 20:49

protected by jcmeloni Jan 16 '13 at 21:15

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.