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Navigate the questions

So you finally landed that sought-after interview. Good for you. But wait. There are some pitfalls that you may not be aware of. Some interviewers, usually untrained, are asking "fun" (translation: "tricky") questions and others are requiring information that is questionable or illegal. You may feel caught between a rock and a hard place. If you refuse to answer, will you be eliminated automatically? If you do answer, do you put yourself in jeopardy of being discriminated against? Here are some tips on how to avoid getting caught by such questions.

Salary requirement questions. What do you say if asked about your current salary or your past salary history? Will you sell yourself short if your present or past salary is less than the range for the new job? If you refuse to answer, will you raise some red flags in the interviewer's mind? Many experts say that the best way to answer is to give a salary range you would expect. Then, later in the interview process if you are offered the position, you can negotiate your salary depending on what the company offers, your experience, credentials and skills.

"Fun" questions. Some interviewers like to throw in non-job related questions to find out more about your personality, imagination, and ability to think on your feet. Examples include, "If you could be a color, which color would you be?" or "Which former president would you like to invite to dinner and why?" Think about your answer. A good answer wouldn't give too much personal information. It would be creative, entertaining and directly related to the job.

Illegal questions. There are some interview questions that are not allowed. And there is a fine line between what's legal and what's illegal. Well trained interviewers know how to gain the information without crossing that line. You can protect yourself by crafting answers that focus on the core concern behind the question.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 spells out what is outlawed in regard to gender, race and other issues. However, this law may not apply to companies with fewer than 15 employees. On the other hand, most states do have laws regarding employment discrimination that apply to smaller companies. Do your homework and find out what the rules are in your state.

Here are some examples of general questions that are illegally worded:

• "Do you have children?" Typically asked of women, this question is really probing whether you have responsibilities that may cause you to be late for or miss work. A legal way to ask this question is: "Is there any reason you would not be able to perform the duties this job requires?" A good answer would be: "I can certainly meet the requirements of this position."

• "Have you ever been arrested?" The reason for this question is obvious, but it's illegal. The legal way to ask this question is: "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" Some states limit this question further and say interviewers can only ask about convictions for felonies. The interviewer should make you aware of the company's requirement to do a background check. If you have been convicted, you should answer "yes" and if there are extenuating circumstances, take the opportunity to explain.

• "Are you a U.S. citizen?" An example of legal wording is, "Do you have legal authorization to work in the United States?"

• "What is your military status?" This question could be used to discriminate against a person in the National Guard or other organizations who may have an upcoming deployment. A legal way to ask this question is, "Do you have any upcoming activities or events that may keep you from performing the duties of this job?" For clarification see the Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act at www.dol.gov. This act also spells out the rights of veterans returning to work after their service.

Marie Stempinski is president and founder of Strategic Communication in St. Petersburg. She specializes in public relations/marketing/business trends and employee motivation consulting. She can be reached at sstratcomm@cs.com or through her website, www.howtomotivate employees.org.

Navigate the questions 11/06/11 [Last modified: Sunday, November 6, 2011 3:30am]
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