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Beware ambiguous questions on job application

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Your job application might be a minefield of litigation risks! Example: If you reserve the right to fire workers who lie on the application, you better be sure that every question on it is absolutely clear.

Recent case: Janet applied for work as an accountant at Columbine Vineyards. The job application included a place to fill in educational achievements, asking the applicant to indicate “Type of Degree Granted or Expected.” Janet filled in “Accounting.” She was hired and classified as an exempt professional.

Then the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) notified the vineyard that it intended to conduct a misclassification audit. The DOL listed Janet as one of the employees it wanted to speak to and told the vineyard it would interview her and several other workers.

Then, in response to a complaint Janet made about Halloween decorations she felt interfered with her religious beliefs, the vineyard reviewed her personnel file. That’s when her managers allegedly discovered that when she was initially hired, Janet did not hold an accounting degree. It fired her for allegedly falsifying her application.

Janet sued, alleging that she had answered the question honestly. She had earned the degree (which she had expected to earn after hire) just six months later. She alleged that she had really been fired because she was on the DOL interview list and might have testified that she had been improperly classified since she had not held a degree the entire time she worked as an accountant.

The court said her case could go forward, based in part on the ambiguously worked application form that didn’t ask applicants to reveal whether they held a degree on the application date or merely expected to earn one at some time in the future. (Bowen v. Columbine Vineyards, No. 1:14-CV-00397, ED CA, 2015)

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