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Fielding Illegal and Inappropriate Questions on the Academic Job Market

December 4, 2017

Landing a telephone, conference, or campus interview is extremely exciting for  junior faculty on the academic job market. Knowing how competitive tenure track positions are, you quickly start prepping for the big event...You polish your job talk...prepare statements on your teaching...research the institution...

 

Then, you are thrown a curve ball when someone asks you an illegal or inappropriate question on the job market. You didn't prepare for this! What do you do? Consider the following real-life scenarios:

 

While at dinner with a search chair and his wife, the wife casually asks me about my name: "Ruggiano. That's Italian. Are you Catholic?"

 

Over coffee during another campus interview, a faculty member asks, "So, what about your husband? What does he think about relocating? Can he get a job here?" (Note that I never mentioned that I had a husband.)

 

While chairing a faculty search, one candidate (who recognized my transparency as a search chair) reported during their campus visit, "While Dr. X was giving me the campus tour this morning, he asked if I had kids or if I was planning to have kids. I said yes. Was that a good or bad answer?" Mortified, I explained that most faculty, including Dr. X had small children and he was most likely trying to identify family-friendly neighborhoods she may like. 

 

Recently, a colleague told me that when she was at lunch with a faculty member during a campus visit, she was asked, "Do you need childcare if you were offered a job here?"

 

The truth is, illegal and inappropriate questions are asked during job interviews. They happen for a number of reasons. For instance, faculty members spend a lot of time with candidates during campus visit and sometimes are searching for new topics to ask them about. Many interviews occur over casual settings, such as restaurant dinners with drinks and the interviewer asks the question carelessly. Sometimes a faculty member is really excited about you being a candidate and asks personal questions to get to know you better. Sometimes a faculty interviewer is simply terrible at interviewing. None of these are very good excuses. However, that doesn't mean that a faculty job candidate shouldn't prepare to respond to them. Here is some advice on fielding such questions:

1. Know what questions you should not be asked. 

Based on federal law, discrimination regarding a candidate's race, national origin, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability status or marital status are discouraged or illegal. Such questions (many of which are commonly asked) include:

  • Are you married?

  • Do you have kids?

  • Are you planning on having kids?

  • When are you planning to have children?

  • Do you have a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse who will be relocating here with you?

  • Is your spouse a man or a woman?

  • Do you need child care? How old are your children?

  • Your last name is Fitzpatrick - should I assume you are Irish?

  • Are you a U.S. citizen?

  • You received your PhD later in life - how many years do you plan to work here before you retire?

  • Your accent is interesting - what country are you from?

  • Are you looking to locate to an area with a large Muslim community? 

  • Do you have a disability that will need accommodations or support?

By federal law, only asking about a candidate's disability is explicitly illegal. Other question may technically not illegal, but should not be asked because they can provide evidence of discrimination in hiring. Also, there may be state/local/institutional policies that discourage or prohibit search committees from asking questions about other characteristics.

 

Such questions can throw off a candidate who only prepared to discuss their research, teaching, accomplishments, and skills. By preparing to discuss such topics, you will be less likely to stumble through these awkward moments of the interview process. 

 

2. Avoid any urge to stop off to the HR office. 

Chances are, you were asked an inappropriate question out of the interviewer's simple interest in getting to know you. Replying to them with a stern, "You're not allowed to ask me that!" may not be in your best interest (especially if you really want the job!). If you feel comfortable answering the question, them feel free to do so.

 

However, not all questions are equally weighted. Candidates who are asked about having children may feel more comfortable responding than candidates who are asked about their religious affiliation or sexual orientation. If you truly feel that a question has been asked in an effort to discriminate against you, one suggested response would be, "That's an interesting question about my religious affiliation - is it relevant to the position?" 

 

3. Frame your response so that it relates to the position. 

When I was first on the academic job market, I was asked by several faculty members during my job search if I was married. My first response would be, "Fortunately, my husband works in a career that is very transferable and we don't anticipate any problem with him relocating here." Hence, I answered the question while also addressing any potential concerns that the response may cause. Other suggestions:

 

  • I already looked into the local community and found that there is support for my faith here, locally. 

  • I don't anticipate childcare will be an issue for me if I worked here. 

  • In researching the local community, I feel that our lifestyle fits well with the local culture here. 

  • I'm able to legally work in the U.S. 

  • My personal life does not interfere with my professional life. 

 

4. Deflect the question to the department or university. 

Another option is to turn the question around so that the interviewer can provide you with more information about why the question may be important. Learning more about how the question relates to the institution can make you feel more comfortable responding to the question. Consider the following exchange:

 

Interviewer: Do you have children?

Candidate: That's interesting that you asked me about my family. Do a lot of faculty members here have small children?

 

Interviewer: Are you Catholic?

Candidate: That's interesting that you would ask me about my faith. Are the faculty in your department very religious?

 

If you find out, for instance, that many other faculty members are new parents, it won't seem as risky to talk about your own children. 

The academic job market is stressful! Preparing for it is vital to land a good position. Need help and guidance in your own academic job search? Contact Nicole today to see how she can help better prepare you for interviews! She can help you craft responses to questions about your research, teaching, and inappropriate topics that you may asked. She also conducts mock interviews with candidates. 

 

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