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Illegal or Inappropriate?

Thomasrobey-72x72[1] Thomas Robey -- “How old are you?”

“Are you married?”

“Do you have kids?”

Have you ever been asked any of these questions? Have you ever been asked by a potential employer? Would your response depend on the inquisitor? If you have been asked by a person more senior than you, have you ever been uncomfortable? You should be. There are a number of questions about certain topics that are inappropriate for residency directors to ask. And sometimes the inappropriate can bleed into illegal.

I've just gotten home from my twelfth and final interview. In the past two months, I've been asked all of the above questions several times. I do have the occasional grey hair on my temples, I wear a wedding band, and I did indicate on my application that I'm couples matching. And I approached my interviews as though the program was the candidate. So in many cases, the question enforced a feeling of comfort with the interviewer (and the program), and I was happy to answer. On other occasions, I felt off-kilter; my tack was to change the subject quickly. I do regret that once I shot back “that's an illegal question.” (By the way, that answer is inappropriate!) On the other hand, if the candidate initiates conversation about a potentially off-limits question, it becomes fair game for conversation.

So what is the law?

Although they're often called "illegal interview questions" in discussions and on the internet, most questions may not actually be illegal. It's illegal when an interviewer asks a question that has discriminatory implications (most commonly about race, age, family, religion, or politics) and then intentionally denies you employment based on your answer. For example, according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it's not against the law for an interviewer to ask your age or birth date; it is against the law for an interviewer to deny you employment because you are age 40 or older. Even if the interviewer does not go against the law, there is still the sentiment of the law and social grace that should be considered. I certainly felt backed into a corner when I responded to the question of whether I planned to have children.

The difference between uncomfortable and illegal is even harder to define in the context of the residency match. Most programs interview 10-15 times as many applicants as they have positions. The interview is an exercise in speed-dating where a 3-6 year relationship is on the line. Residencies are looking for applicants who are the "best fit." How can you tell when "personality" overlaps with "youth?" Or (more sinisterly) if a preference for Ivy League trained medical students implies a program's class preference? I'm optimistic that most residency programs intentionally avoid these mistakes in their selection process, but the applicant has to take a leap of faith on this issue. We applicants never know how we were ranked at any of the programs we applied to except for one -– and even then we can not be certain.

In the end, my strategy was to bring up these issues in a way I was comfortable. After all, I'm interviewing them!

January 19, 2009 | Permalink


I don't dispute that that sort of questioning is discomfort-inducing and/or illegal, but it seems to me that for something like, say, emergency medicine, which comes with irregular hours, emotional ups and downs, and, statistically speaking, relationship problems, these topics are less discriminatory and more "need to know" points—for your sake, for theirs, and for patients'. Certain types of baggage can be a hindrance in medicine, obviously, and if, all else being equal, one candidate has 6 children under the age of 10, say, and another has none, that's something that might need to be considered. Shouldn't, but might.

Posted by: Ben | Jan 19, 2009 6:49:06 PM

Those in EM tend to have relationship problems as compared to over specialties? I would think the shift work with no call would lead to better relationships?

Posted by: Jordan | Jan 20, 2009 6:26:26 AM

I'd be interested in the statistics supporting relationship problems, too ;) Empirically, I've encountered more situations similar to Jordan's comment.

Posted by: thomas | Jan 20, 2009 7:41:28 PM

(Sorry, I meant to make that a more general, medicine-wide claim!) :)

Posted by: Ben | Jan 20, 2009 8:18:22 PM

"The interview is an exercise in speed-dating where a 3-6 year relationship is on the line."

Research-oriented general surgery programs are 7 years and beyond in some cases. Just thought I'd throw that in there.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 20, 2009 8:58:48 PM

But the fellowship and research components require additional interviews, yes?

Posted by: thomas | Jan 20, 2009 9:24:57 PM

For a perspective from a different industry, Microsoft has interview training. You are not allowed to witness an interview without proper training. Between the online and classroom portions, there is at least a day's worth of required material. After that, you will sit in on a few interviews before you start interviewing by yourself.

I was taught to be precise in my questions and to not ask questions for which I did not have a specific purpose for asking. If there is a dispute and you had a purpose for your question, that is your (valid) defense. If you don't know why you asked the question, it's hole in your legal defense. This same precise questioning also leads to a very effective interview and a decision backed up by facts and proof and not just by "gut feeling." The difference between a bad interview and an effective interview is incredible to witness, and the difference shows in the quality of the employee.

Based on everything I've heard, I would be surprised if residency interviewers receive any training. I think they should, not for lawsuit avoidance but to choose a better class of residents.

Posted by: Ted Howard | Jan 20, 2009 10:19:14 PM

i wonder what interviewers will do/ask to a pregnant applicant... any thoughts?

Posted by: mdstudent | Jan 21, 2009 8:01:55 AM

I always said I wasn't sure. It seems to me that getting married and having kids is something that may or may not happen. At the time I was in a longterm relationship and it was a possibility now I am starting over with a new person so who knows. They are trying to test the waters to see availability, but some people have no problem balancing children, marriage, career.

Posted by: Stephanie | Jan 21, 2009 10:27:12 AM

Applying to Peds, I don't want to go to a program that has a problem with me being married with two kids, or that feels a need to screen out applicants that come with "baggage." My kids aren't baggage and if they don't want them, they don't get me.

Posted by: Tim | Jan 21, 2009 12:38:14 PM

I have heard before the absurd idea that marriage and children would be an obstacle for a career, and, as I was now, I was shocked about it. It is a discrimination to reject someone on an interview based on their relationship status and having/planning to have children. This is the same as stating that one knows better about you and how you manage your life then yourself. And nobody knows it better then you, and that's why people who think can't deal with their family life and a demanding residency won't apply for that residency. And same as Tim says, if they don't want me as I am, then they won't get me. And if a program rejects people for having a family, it means that residency program is using a very low and unfair way to select their candidates, and they are not good programs.

Posted by: Elena | Jan 21, 2009 5:58:30 PM

I was asked for a residency interview if I had a family/kids etc...and on saying that I did have a 1 year old- was asked if I was planning to have her with me or leave her back home with my parents for the duration of the residency. I was shocked at the very idea -and needless to say I didn't rank the program!

Very good thoughts by Ted Howard- must haves for faculty interviewing for residency/fellowship programs.

Posted by: S Iyer | Jan 21, 2009 7:50:14 PM

I do not consider my six year old son to be baggage. That is offensive.

Posted by: Jimbo | Jan 21, 2009 11:30:38 PM

Absolutely agree... offensive to imply that families are "baggage" and I absolutely don't want a doctor taking care of me that has no respect for the most important relationships in a persons life...shows a profound lack of maturity and insight

Posted by: ruby | Jan 23, 2009 9:53:50 AM

I hope the commenter who used the word baggage was doing so in a facetious manner. The point of my perspective is that it's inappropriate for programs to ask such questions at all, and it could be illegal.

Posted by: thomas | Jan 25, 2009 4:17:51 PM

Well, many times we assume that those questions concerning marital status, number of kids you've got, etc are some kind of discrimating. But is there a possibility that we can look at those questions from a different perspective, say employers want to hire someone with a family which might mean they're settled with their romantic life and are mature enough to start their own family? They'll be more committed to their job because they've to bring home the bacon instead of going into parties till late night to look for their significant others?

To me, it's fine with all those questions. I don't feel offended at all.

Posted by: creole | Feb 5, 2009 12:53:58 AM


I recently had 3 interviews for a position. Finally, the interviewer said he would contact me within 24 hrs to let me know either way. He did not call or let me know if I had the job, but he did email to say, that I made a very good point about my motivation to work there, and that he was advocating for me, and to ask if I wanted to hike that weekend. Isn't this illegal? I no longer want to work there, and I would like to report him. Where can I find the rules/ laws or even general consensus on this type of situation?

Thank you,


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