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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

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