Navigating the gray area

Published: May 21, 2022

Gray area interview questions

In a workshop, we discuss job interviews. Isolde speaks up: “How do I react to questions about children?” “Or questions about health?” asks Pavel, who had previously spoken openly about his diabetes.

What do I do if such questions are asked nonetheless?

A rule of thumb: Questions are legal if they allow the employer to assess whether you can, in general, fulfil the job’s tasks. In this sense, future bus drivers can be asked about their eyesight. Scientists often work in laboratories or offices, so most health restrictions are no exclusion criteria. What about people who can do their job but have an increased risk of missing a day of work- for example, through a chronic illness like our diabetic Pavel or the parents of small children? Such cases are considered a “general risk of life.” These applicants can, in general, fill their position. Therefore, questions about such matters are not permitted. “What do I do if such questions are asked nonetheless?” Elisa asks.

In the job interview, your private life is protected from all-too-nosy questions. However, most of the time, these questions are not asked as such. Somewhat ambiguous statements are made instead: “I hope you are aware that such a complex position is hardly compatible with extensive private commitments.” In this case, the most straightforward answer is to confirm the statement without revealing anything: “Yes, I am aware of that.” If such questions are indeed formulated as questions, the employer breaches the law. You are allowed to remain silent, lie, and sue the interviewer. Unfortunately, all three options have weaknesses. Employers would interpret whatever they want in such a silence. Lying is also tricky: can you do it in a stressful situation, and would it even be possible to develop a positive work relationship after such a start? And who wants to go to court against his future employer?

There is at least one semi-workable solution. The applicant can fire a warning shot and try to get the conversation back to the essence of the interview: “If you can explain to me what my family plans have to do with my work, then I’m happy to answer the question.” You show that you know how to speak up for yourself without threatening a court case straight away.


This article was originally published in Nachrichten aus der Chemie (03-2022). See the German original

Are you curious to learn more about the topic of job interviews? Then our workshop Job application and interview strategies for scientists might be interesting for you.

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