Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Dealing With "Illegal" Interview Questions

There have been several recent discussions concerning concerning the best way for interviewees to deal with interviewers who ask so-called "illegal" questions. (Although my understanding is that Glaucon, writing here, is basically correct: though it is illegal for search committees to use the information as a basis for hiring decisions, it is not literally illegal for them to ask the questions. But whatever. I'm not a lawyer, and its not as though there's no relationship between the information the search committee attempts to collect in the interviews and the information the search committee might use as the basis for its decision.) A discussion at Feminist Philosophers is here; a discussion at NewAPPS is here.

As I read through the suggestions, I find myself thinking the same thing over and over and over: this won't work. It seems to me that all such suggestions are basically misguided, in that they are based on the premise that there is some reliable way to diffuse the situation without harming your chances of getting the job. I don't think there is any reliable strategy here.

As I see it, there are four main ways of responding to the situation:

1. Answer the question honestly. There's always the chance that they just want to let you know how great their department/school/community is for people in your situation, or how open and welcoming they are, and that they won't use the information in their deliberations, after all. Maybe. Probably, even. But I guess I wouldn't count on it.

2. Answer the question dishonestly. After all, at this point in the process, it really isn't any of their business. Of course, it'll be somewhere in the range between difficult and impossible to maintain the lie if you get the job, and it'll be awkward when the truth comes out. AWK. WARD.

3. Decline to answer the question in a way that draws attention to its inappropriateness. You can do this in a way that conveys some negative emotion, such as anger, frustration, disappointment, or sadness, but doing so is not going to be good for your chances however you do it. Letting your interviewers know you're not happy with them isn't a good interview strategy.

You could try to do it in jokey, laughy way, but any way you frame the joke, it's a joke about how the interviewer has asked you a question you find inappropriate and/or legally problematic. It won't work if joke is at the interviewer's expense; you have to bring him into the joke with you, but in a way that still makes it clear that the question was not appropriate and you're declining to answer it. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's going to be hard. This is not a beginner-level joke.

4. Decline to answer using stealth, without drawing attention to the inappropriateness of the question. Maybe by changing the subject or something, or by telling an unrelated joke. There's a lot of potential for weirdness here. They asked you a question; you didn't answer it. It's not like they're not going to notice.

If I had to pick, I'd say #1 and #4 are the best of a bad bunch. This has happened to me only a couple of times, and both times it was fairly clear that they were just trying to let me know that their area had a lot to offer. At least, that's how I read the situation at the time. I adopted strategy #1, and answered honestly while trying to thread the needle between seeming open and forthcoming while revealing as little as possible and trying to move on quickly. The alternatives seemed much riskier. But I felt really awkward, and the awkwardness was not alleviated when, on one occasion, one of the other interviewers pointed out that the question was out-of-bounds. I wasn't at all confident that I was handling it right. And it goes without saying that I didn't get the job (not that I have any reason to suspect that there's any direct connection).

And so it seems to me that once a question like this comes up, there are no good alternatives. There's no reliable way to maneuver oneself out of the situation. It's possible to pull off, of course. There are things that will work here and there. But I can't see any general piece of advice that would be widely applicable and effective in a risk-free way. Which bums me out.

--Mr. Zero


TT Interviewer said...

I agree that all of the candidate's options are bad. As someone who will be fortunate enough to be on the other side of the table in Atlanta, let me suggest a variation on all four options: Before you say whatever you're going to say, give the other interviewers a second or two to intervene. In light of these discussions, I've concluded that it is my responsibility, as a member of the interviewing committee, to instruct candidates not to answer such questions and to remind my colleagues that we are not supposed to ask them. Hopefully someone on your interviewing committee will think the same thing.

But let me also suggest one more option for candidates: Ask a follow-up question without answering the original one. For instance, if the interviewer asks whether you have children, ask something like, "Why do you ask? Are there particularly good schools near Bumblefuck State? There are? Huh! I didn't know that!" Or if they ask about your sexuality: "Why do you ask? Does Bumblefuck State offer benefits to same-sex partners? It does? That's great. I support equal rights for same-sex partners."

At least in some cases, this will gently remind the interviewer that the question is inappropriate and give them an easy way to avoid what may, after all, be an innocent misstep.

My apologies if someone else has already made this suggestion elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

During an interview, one of my colleagues asked one applicant what other schools he was interviewing at, so we could figure out how competitive we needed to be. She asked another applicant if her wedding ring meant she was also planning on having kids. She told a third applicant that being Jewish doesn't make her nearly as "diverse" as being a lesbian, but that she wouldn't hold that fact against her.

All three times, I found myself jumping in to correct my colleague and assure the candidates that they were under no obligation to answer, and that I apologize for the inappropriate questions.

My colleague, to this day, does not understand what she did wrong.

Anonymous said...

I understand the appeal of that option, but I suspect that it's not going to be very helpful. The fact is that asking someone why they asked you an interview question is a clear sign that something is wrong.

Of course, it's possible that they are asking because they want to highlight the kinds of advantages mentioned. In that case, this might not do much harm (though I doubt it will do much good, either; if they were comfortable asking the question, they're unlikely to be impressed at your reluctance to answer it, however cleverly you mask this).

On the other hand, if they were asking for other reasons, then now you not only said something that indicates the inappropriateness of the question, but also challenges them to justify their asking it. Potentially, this is even worse than just saying that it's inappropriate.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I'm male, but I have been asked these sorts of inappropriate questions in interviews.

One of the best things you can do is do a variation of what 'TT Interviewer' suggests.

If asked, e.g., whether "you have kids."

You respond with: "I am assuming you're asking because you're concerned about whether I will be able to perform all of the duties required for this job. I can assure you that I will be able to without fail...as you can see from my research/service/record, I've had no problems thus far..."

Don't answer the question, but do acknowledge it.

That's my suggestion.

Anonymous said...

"Where else are you interviewing?"
This is a very tricky question when asked directly.
Any advice on how to handle it?

Justin said...

It seems that, at the very least, a good response would give no clue as to the correct answer to the question.

Anonymous said...

This is 6:11.

"Where else are you interviewing?"

If you're interviewing at a SLAC, Response: "I am interested in obtaining employment at a small liberal arts college because x."

If R1, replace with analogous.

Don't answer, but do acknowledge.

Anonymous said...

I think that it should not only be noted that male candidates get asked these questions less frequently (though I only know this through anecdotal evidence --rather than any studies), but also that when men and women answer these inappropriate questions, they are met with different responses (conscious or not).

When a male candidate says he is married, the thought is that he is stable and committed. The thought is also that he has a partner that will follow him wherever, whenever.

When a female candidate gives indication that she is married, the thought is that she is less mobile and likely to have a few kids in the near future.

When a male candidate mentions that he has kids, the thought is that he is a family guy and that is nice --but he has someone to take care of the children so he can be left to his important work.

When a female candidate mentions children, the opposite is assumed. She won't produce what's expected research-wise because she is too busy raising children.

And so on and so on...

These questions have nothing to do with one's record as a scholar and teacher. I thus take it that they should be off the table.

I do think, however, that having rehearsed answers that one is comfortable with is a good piece of advice. It's just finding the answers that one is comfortable with that is difficult!

Anonymous said...

Sorry to threadjack, but can I just remind search committee members that in addition to refraining from illegal questions, could you please refrain from being a jerk more generally? Last year, a faculty member was actively texting on her iphone during my job talk, and just this week a faculty member was visibly scrolling for something on his iphone and clearly distracted by it during my skype interview.

Anonymous said...

I am VERY worried about this, as I am a female with kids. I don't have any interviews requests so far, which I tentatively take to mean I will be back on the market next year, when I will be on at the same time as my husband (same last name). When we apply to the same job, it will be obvious, at least, that I am married.

I like 6:11 AM's answer a lot, and it's how I plan to answer.

But another question. I would love to hear what people have to say about this. I have an unusual AOC that an interviewer is sure to ask about. If they ask how I got interested in this AOC (a totally legitimate question), I could say that it raises all sorts of interesting philosophical questions. And it does. But the answer really is that I got interested in it because it is relevant to one of my children. I think this is an argument about how having children actually can inform philosophy, not only be distractions. But I also want a job first and foremost! Should I just give the philosophical reasons? (They will figure out, if I am hired, how my interest is spurred by my kid if they meet my kid.) Or should I say it's because it's related to my child?

I know this is rather vague, but if anyone had generic advice, I'd appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Here's a stab at a feasible joke answer that's sufficiently ambiguous to not be a lie whatever your status might be: "Well, some of my temporal parts might [be married; have children; be gay...etc.]." Or even just "Well, what are your views on personal identity?"or some such as a counter-question.

Not sure it would work wonders, but it's a stab.

Anonymous said...

Is there a prize for the most illegal interview experience ever? If so, I'm a contender. After returning home from an on-campus interview, I received a call from one of the committee members. This committee member expressed concern about how my religious beliefs would fit in with the department, and proceeded to ask very direct questions about the nature of those beliefs, whether and how they affect my teaching, etc. (No, I'm not a wacko snake-handling Scientologist or anything. I'm a fairly boring sort of Christian.)

The message was clear and explicit: the committee wanted to offer me the job, but the offer was contingent on what this committe member thought about my answers to these questions.

I wish I had been in a position to tell this person what I thought of the experience. But I was looking down the barrel of another failed year on the job market, and I have a family, so I answered the questions. It was definitely one of the grossest experiences of my life. It felt as though this person was exploiting a position of power to coerce me to compromise my integrity. I answered honestly, but I also tried to sculpt the truth as best I could into what the interviewer wanted to hear. Yuck.

I got the offer. Fortunately, against the odds, another offer came through and I didn't have to work with those people. But, had that second offer not come through, I would have worked with those people, and still counted myself lucky to have gotten a TT job. And perhaps that's the sickest part of the whole story.

zombie said...

TT Interviewer is correct that it really is the responsibility of other members of the committee to rescue the candidate from these awkward and inappropriate situations. One can only hope that at least one member of the SC has had diversity and legal hiring practices training. These questions are not illegal per se (no one will be prosecuted for asking), but the are prohibited in hiring situations.

Unfortunately, during a campus visit, you are likely to be in many situations where you are with a single member of the SC. Being driven to and from the airport, escorted to meetings, etc. In such cases, there is no one else there to defuse the situation, which leaves the candidate with no good options.

Anonymous said...

This is Anonymous from 10:50 up there. I forgot to mention that this awkward phone conversation about my religious beliefs lasted for TWO HOURS.

Two hours!

Anonymous said...

Two hours is obscene, needless to say.

I had something like the opposite problem, where people decided (on the basis of nothing very much) that I was some sort of super-conservative religious type and would therefore be (among other things) hostile to gay people. In fact, I am gay people, and a "fairly boring sort of Christian" (love that expression). I wonder if it would have been better if they'd just asked. Better still, of course, not to build up someone into a monster on the basis of completely groundless speculation.

I found all this out when it was too late to do any good. I take some comfort in the fact that the person they hired instead of me found the department to be a miserable snakepit and fled as soon as he was able. I mean, it was a shame for her (I like her), but certainly I was well out of it.

Anonymous said...

I had some illegal questions, but even more of the "we'd really like to ask this illegal questions that suddenly is vaguely germane to the topic of discussion, but we can't because we know it is illegal" kinds of moments. There's also a lot of accidental question-asking, where the answer to the question involves information they are not supposed to base a decision on, but they don't know that when they ask the question.

Sometimes, it works out best out to just be honest. I also found ti worked out to just be the one who raised the topic myself, since the conversation had already gone near it and it was apparently on everyone's mind, but no one was going to ask (for instance, about reproductive status issues). People on committees do all sorts of shit they may or may not be legally allowed to do. You cannot do anything about that. Some will rampantly speculate in astonishingly stupid ways as to what they think candidates want or would choose under various situations. For the people who came out and asked about it, they were at least working with more accurate information when they made those rampant speculations, rather than less accurate info. It sucks, no doubt. But it is also not in your control to micromanage the info they ask for, assume, or base their wildly stupid speculations on; even if you are in the right, you still don't have a way to enforce that right.

Anonymous said...

If asked "Where else are you interviewing?" you could always answer with

"I'll tell you if you tell me who else you're interviewing..." but I wouldn't recommend it.

My biggest blown interview moment was when, at the end of our APA interview, a department located in Midwest area X asked me "Do you have any other questions for us or anything else you'd like to tell us" and I blew it by not saying I'd love to live in Midwest area X."

I found out later this was a decisive point against me - they were too worried about losing the position if they didn't succeed in hiring and worried about flight risk.

Anonymous said...

So I just applied to a position that required you to answer whether you have a spouse or partner applying for a faculty position. It also asked for the partner's name and what position they're applying to.

The question looks like it isn't required, but when you don't answer it, the answer defaults to "No" in the summary at the end of the application. Maybe it isn't lying if you don't put anything and the system answers for you...

Anonymous said...

8:38am, as a SC member, I would urge you not to jump to conclusions about what folks are doing with mobile phones, iPads, etc. Of course, your worst suspicions *could* be true. But often, it's directly relevant and as an innocuous (but more eco-friendly) as consulting paperwork.

Anonymous said...

Just received a rejection email for the open position at Pitt. It was nicely put, and I have to say I appreciate the effort to let me know about this as soon as possible.

Shouldn't all departments send these out once it is clear who is in the realm of possibility and who is not?

Anonymous said...

What 8:17 said -- doing this seems like basic courtesy. Though if hiring departments were so courteous, what would we do with all those hours spent refreshing the wiki?

Anonymous said...

8:17, I work at a state university, and our state-mandated policy is that we cannot send out rejection letters until the position is filled, which means until someone has signed a contract. It sucks, but our hands are tied.

Anonymous said...

12:37, then why not send out letters saying that the position hasn't been filled, but you've not been invited for interviews, though we will keep your application officially open, etc. etc.?

Anonymous said...

8:17 here. Ah, thanks for that explanation 12:37.

Could you send an email saying something like this: "Although we have made no final decisions regarding the position and therefore state regulations bar us from sending official rejection notices, your current ranking in our selection process suggests that your chances of getting an interview are near zero. We thought this information might be helpful in giving you sense of your likely prospects and thereby reducing job market anxiety."

Just a thought...maybe the lawyers would jump on that too.

Anonymous said...

Let's give credit where credit is due: Trinity University sent out a nicely worded you've-not-been-invited-to-the-interviews email, too.

Anonymous said...

Georgetown also sent a very nice "you didn't make the short list but thanks for applying" email.

Anonymous said...

Kudos to Waterloo for also sending a nice email. They even included my name! Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

How about an open thread in which to brag and bitch about the market, gossip about jobs, complain about the profession, ask questions, etc?

Anonymous said...

I know the wiki is not omniscient, but I've got like 15 TT jobs that still haven't been listed.

O-for a bunch so far tho

CTS said...

I think (at this late stage of my life and career) that most places probably could do better by way of notifying people they do not want to interview. And, yet, there are difficulties:

1) All the Eastern sh*t happens at the worst time of year for everyone. We are trying to get our grading done, to do the holidays for our families, write letters for students (and chase down the students who have not turned in work), and so on.*

2) We are often hampered by administrators and HR. I don't think most unemployed academics have any idea how [insanely] obstructive these actors can be.

3) Many of us have only part -time secretaries. And, alas, those folks often take their vacations just when the APA madness is most heated. Or, they, too, are swamped by end of semester craziness.

*I have spent many, many hours and three hours is meetings dealing with a plagiarism case at the very end of this semester.

I don't write all this to excuse any rude treatment of candidates, but only to point out that the folks on the other end might be overstretched and stressed as well.

Anonymous said...

i second anon 5:30's suggestion for an open thread.

Anonymous said...

Back to the original topic of conversation, I think there are two solutions that haven't been mentioned and there hasn't been sufficient support of option number 2, lying.

Additional Solution 1: One thing that search committee members could do, or chairs of departments, is to ask the dean to provide a one-hour mandatory training session by a lawyer in HR for interviewers. This kind of solution places the burden where it should be, on the university. It provides legal guidance to the people conducting the interviews. Sure, it's another meeting they have to attend, but it's important.

Additional Option 2: Report illegal questions to the EEOC. At the extreme, find out if it's legal to record a conversation without the consent of the other party in your state and, if so, use the smartphone in your pocket to record the interview surreptitiously. If an illegal question is asked, report the conversation to the EEOC. (You might want to wait until you've been rejected before pursuing this route.) Of course, this is dangerous because you probably won't remain anonymous, but again, it would place the burden in the proper place by penalizing the institution and possibly the particular interviewer.
If nothing else, spreading a rumor that some people are recording interviews and are planning on reporting illegal questions to the EEOC might head off some of the illegal questions.

3. I still don't understand why simply lying is a bad solution. What's wrong with saying, "No, I'm single and have no intention of having children"? The initial worry was that it would be awkward. That's true, but on the other hand, the reasons it is awkward cannot be expressed in public. What's the interviewer supposed to say? "You lied to us; we really were only considering childless individuals"?

zombie said...

8:41: it's not illegal to ask the questions. It's illegal to use the answers as a basis for discriminatory hiring decisions. Of course, why ask them if you're not going to use them as a basis for a hiring decision?

While I don't think your suggestion to report these questions is a bad one, I would suggest reporting them to the HR department of the school in question. EEOC probably isn't going to go around investigating claims from disgruntled, disappointed job candidates.

Anonymous said...

I know that this is probably a bit out of left-field, but wouldn't it be great if we had a professional association with whom we could riase issues of this sort. Of course, it would need a name. Perhaps we should call it the 'Amercian Profeesional Philosopher Association'