Opening Statements

Jabber-Jaw, Job Edition

Posted Feb 1, 2009 10:30 PM CDT
By Arin Greenwood

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Illustration by A.J. Garces

With the economy in flux, lots of lawyers are on the street looking for new jobs. That made us wonder: What’s the most outrageous question you’ve ever been asked in a job interview? We posed the question to our readers on ABAJournal.com and asked employment lawyer Elaina Smiley of Pitts­burgh’s Meyer, Unkovic & Scott just how outrageous those questions really were. Judging by the responses, we think employment law is recession-proof.

Do you have a life?

“While interviewing for a position in the Philadelphia office of a BigLaw firm based in New York, the managing partner of the office said, ‘I know I’m not supposed to ask this, but I’m going to anyway: Do you have any obligations that would interfere with the amount of time you can devote to your work here? Husband, kids, anything like that?’ ”

Smiley: “Are they asking the male employees this? Probably not. Sex is a protected class. It’s a Title VII claim. You can ask someone if they can perform the job duties—‘Here are the hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Can you be here?’ You can’t, though, ask why someone can’t perform the job duties—why they can’t be at the office for 15 hours a day.”

And your religion is ... ?

“During my interview for an in-house employment counsel position in Kansas, I was asked whether I had accepted Jesus Christ into my heart.”

Smiley: “Nice. Wow. Oh my. You can’t be asking people about their religious beliefs. That could lead to religious discrimination claims [or] national origin discrimination claims.”

How much will you put up with?

“In an interview for a legal assistant position in the late ‘80s, I was asked if I objected to pur­chasing Hustler magazine for the partner I was to be assigned to. To be honest, I was desperate for a job and the location in Man­hat­tan was my first choice because I would not have to take the subway. My reply: ‘Only if I don’t have to pay for it.’ ”

Smiley: “The question of purchasing Hustler, a well-known magazine, can be construed as ask­­­ing someone if they will put up with sexual harassment and is a totally inappropriate ques­tion. We have seen ... cases where a plaintiff has been successful in as­serting a sexual harassment claim where a boss was ordering sexually explicit items and sending them to his workplace knowing that his female assistant opened his mail.”

How’s your health?

“During an interview with the general counsel and CFO of a company, the CFO asked me if I had any serious illness such as cancer. He then explained that they had hired someone who had cancer, and that person’s medical bills caused their health insurance premiums to increase.”

Smiley: The Americans with Disa­bilities Act prohibits medical inqui­ries. “You can’t ask people about their medical conditions. You can ask people if they can do the job with or without reasonable accommodations. You can ask someone if they can do what the job requires. But you can’t ask why they can’t.”

Which team do you root for?

“During an interview at a prestigious New York City law firm several years ago, a partner detected my Boston accent and asked if I was a Red Sox fan. I re­plied that I am. He then proceeded to ask me when was the last time the Red Sox had won the World Series, which every Bostonian at the time knew was 1918. He then asked me how many times the Yankees had won the World Series since then and proceeded to tell me before I could answer.”

Smiley: “I don’t see any problems with that.”

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