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Can an interviewer ask if I have children?

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in Your Office Coach

Question:  “During my interviews for a sales position, I am often asked whether I have children. When I say that I have four, the managers typically respond that they also have children and must juggle a lot of responsibilities.  The question usually comes up in a casual chat, while we’re driving to a field office or eating lunch. This seems like friendly conversation, but since I have received no job offers, I can’t help wondering if it’s really discrimination. Can this question legally be asked in an informal setting?  And how do I respond without looking resistant?”  —Working Mom

Answer:  Managers frequently forget that every interaction with an applicant is part of the interview process. If they drop their guard during coffee breaks and lunch, they can inadvertently wander into unwise areas of questioning.  So your interviewers may simply be making ill-advised small talk.

Even if this is a devious screening tactic, ducking the question would be difficult.  If you point out the inappropriateness of the inquiry, you appear confrontational and possibly litigious. Refusing to answer would seem downright odd.

To minimize the problem, keep your response brief and positive.  Don’t be seduced into a mutual gripe session about the challenges of work-life balance.  Make it clear that parenthood has not hampered your success at work.  As soon as possible, change the subject to a more businesslike topic.

Technically speaking, the question is inappropriate, but not actually illegal.  Legally, the issue is whether this information is used in the hiring decision.  But since you can’t use information that you don’t have, smart interviewers avoid asking such incriminating questions.

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