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Employers behaving badly: Discrimination in the workplace

Whether you are a long-time employee seeking a promotion or a potential employee at your initial interview, employers are strictly prohibited from discriminating on the basis of:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Race or national origin
  • Pregnancy

Many acts of discrimination are hidden behind closed doors, disguised as “innocent” remarks or buried in a long list of application questions. Some, however, are more easily identified. The recent result of a discrimination lawsuit is a good example of an employer behaving badly and not even trying to hide it.

A woman endured a rigorous interviewing process and received the long sought-after offer of employment. All went well up to this point.

However, upon accepting the offer in a phone call to the HR department, she asked about the company’s maternity benefits, as she was pregnant. Within 30 minutes of her call, the company rescinded the job offer. Apparently, this employer did not know it is illegal to discriminate against women who are pregnant. The woman was eventually awarded $100,000 in a settlement

Questions employers cannot ask during interviews

While most acts of discrimination are not as easy to spot as in this example, look out for questions designed to get the information from you in another way.

  • Race: A comment about your accent can lead to a question about where you are from.
  • Age: A remark about attending the same high school or college can turn into a question about when you graduated.
  • Religion: Questions about your church involvement, affiliation or religious practices — such as required clothing or prayer time — are forbidden unless the hiring company is a religious organization.
  • Children: If you notice a photo of the interviewer’s children and make casual conversation about them, the interviewer cannot ask you about yours or about pregnancy.
  • National origin: A job that requires mastery of multiple languages may lead to questions about which language you speak at home. This is inappropriate.
  • Disability: Even if you are in a wheelchair, questions about disabilities or special accommodations should not come up, although questions about your ability to do the job may.

What to do if you are asked an inappropriate question

Trust your gut. If a question doesn’t feel right to you, ask what the answer has to do with your job qualifications. Seek clarification, and think about your answer before responding. While the interviewer may not know the law, that is no excuse for asking inappropriate questions.

Anti-discrimination laws were created to protect you. If you suspect that you were not hired or promoted because of discrimination, ask an employment law attorney for advice.