The Workologist | While apparently on the right side of the law, interviewer was on the wrong side of everything else — including common sense.
Q: Recently, I was waiting for a flight from Boston to San Francisco when I realized that a man seated nearby was loudly interviewing someone on his mobile phone for a technology job. At least five or six people could hear this, as well as a subsequent call he made to his supervisor telling him or her that he was passing on the candidate, in part because the requested salary ($180,000) was too high.
One of the questions the interviewer asked was, “Are you single?” He was such a jerk that one of my fellow passengers said, “This is the kind of person who is ruining San Francisco.”
My question: Is it legal to conduct a job interview in a public place?
A: The Workologist checked with several lawyers, and while your fellow traveler’s behavior may have been obnoxious and absurd, it is evidently legal. The usual caveats apply — there’s a lot we don’t know about the specifics here, and it’s always possible that some detail of the episode runs counter to a particular state or local regulation — so let’s just consider the matter broadly.
“There would typically be no restriction on someone conducting a job interview in a public setting,” said Joseph Seiner, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law whose focus includes employment law and the workplace. “That is the legal answer,” Seiner said.
“But as a human resources expert,” he promptly added, “I would strongly advise against this type of public interview.”
This is the real heart of the matter: While apparently on the right side of the law, this interviewer was on the wrong side of everything else — including common sense. He could easily be revealing confidential company information, about salary matters, for instance, said Lori Adelson, a lawyer whose firm, Adelson Law & Mediation, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, specializes in employment law. If she were his boss, she said, “I’d be extremely displeased.”
Perhaps it was crucial for all concerned to get this interview squared away before a long flight, and it’s plausible that the candidate agreed to the airport call (or at least deduced it from all those background announcements for the 3:37 flight to Nashville, or whatever).
But as Adelson and Seiner said, it should have been easy enough to find a more discreet place in the airport — or at least to have proceeded at a lower volume. The Workologist can only add that if you find yourself being interviewed in this manner, give some thought to what such sloppy and self-important behavior might suggest about the operations and culture of the potential employer.
It’s also worth noting here — again, with the caveat that state laws vary — that asking a candidate about marital status does not by itself violate federal law. However, it’s a line of questioning that can prove to be relevant in claims of gender discrimination, particularly when it is asked only of women. So I’d suggest that interviewers avoid it.
Addressing the public interview question in general, Seiner agrees that many people might assume that such behavior is forbidden because “it doesn’t feel right.” Interviewers ought to embrace that sentiment. “There’s the law, and there’s the best practice,” he continues. “There are things that aren’t going to get you in trouble legally, but you just shouldn’t do them.”
Q: Regarding your recent column on what to do “when a plum job turns sour”: I had a very similar work experience about five years ago. I was directed to take the lead on a new line of business totally unrelated to my previous work. After some (silent) head-scratching, I embraced the challenge. I essentially grew this business from nothing, learning a tremendous amount.
My boss recognized and acknowledged the skills that enabled me to do the new job well: curiosity, perseverance, resourcefulness, professionalism, the ability to infer and draw conclusions. Recently, I parlayed this experience, with support from my boss, into a new and quite gainful position with another firm.
So I wish your response would have prompted the writer to see the predicament from a more positive angle and to think through potential possibilities — in other words, to make lemonade out of what seem to be lemons.
A: This may indeed be a very helpful line of thought for many workers who find themselves pushed into new responsibilities that feel like a career detour.
But the person who made the original inquiry was a year and a half deep into the unwelcome new gig, which seems like enough time to decide, “This isn’t for me.” So maybe the attitude suggested here can’t work for everyone.
But particularly for early-career workers, the Workologist agrees that it’s a great idea to remain open-minded about picking up new skills. You never know what might come in handy later in your work life — or what you might discover you enjoy. And perhaps, given the volatile nature of the current labor market, this is truer than ever, for workers at any career stage.
The most useful thing about this advice is the way it’s framed here: focusing less on the specific new duties and more on the deeper qualities (perseverance, curiosity, etc.) an employee might develop, or demonstrate. Sure, the resulting lemonade may not ultimately be to your taste. But perhaps it’s worth giving it an honest taste before you decide.
Submit questions to Rob Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org.