Job Applications: What are your rights and how to handle a discriminatory question.

Preparing for a new job and the application process is often nerve-wracking and stressful.  Do you ever wonder what the employer will ask you, or what qualifications you should emphasize,  to show that you are capable of performing the tasks of the job?  Preparing to answer questions such as “What can you do for our team?” or “What’s your greatest weakness?” is crucial.  But imagine your potential employer asking you “How old are you?” or, “Are you planning on having kids soon?” The interview process has changed quickly from innocent to illegal.  Before going to your next job interview, brush up on your rights as an applicant.
There are many things an employer cannot ask you on your application.  These are certain questions that violate your civil rights, such as:

  • Age/Date of birth. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects applicants from disclosing their age during the hiring process to prevent age discrimination.  If the applicant is less than 18 years of age, asking for the date of birth is permissible because of children’s labor laws.  After being hired, the company may ask for birth certificates or licenses to verify date of birth for pension purposes, but they may not ask for these before hiring you.
  • Race, Religion, National Origin. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires that covered employers consider people of all nationalities and color.  Each application should state that the company is an Equal Opportunity Employer, and at no point should you answer a question like “Where were you born”, “What is your ancestry”, or “What religious beliefs do you follow?”  There are I-9 forms that can be used to determine the status of citizenship of an applicant.  These questions do not belong on an application.
  • Physical traits, disabilities. Unless height and weight are directly related to job performance, these questions should not be on the application. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits general inquiries about disabilities, health problems, and medical conditions. The employer may ask if you are capable of fulfilling the requirements of the job, but they may not ask you if you have disabilities or health problems.

There are many other restrictions on the application and interview process, which should be explored by everyone looking for employment.  While most employers do not have discriminatory intentions and are attempting to find the right “fit for the job,” you may find yourself in a situation where you are asked a question that is unlawful.

What should you do when this problem arises?  First, consider the intent of the question and how it was phrased.  It is important that you understand the employer’s reason for asking the question and their method of assessment, rather than assuming they have discriminatory intentions.
There are many ways to creatively answer questions without disclosing unlawful information.  For example, if you are asked “How old are you?” the best answer is to refer the question back to the job you are applying for.  “I am of legal working age” is a fit answer.  If you are asked “What religion are you?” it is okay to answer with “My religious practices will not hinder my potential to successfully perform the tasks of this position.”  Keep in mind that your application becomes a permanent part of your file.  If you choose to be untruthful on your application, that only provides the employer a potentially valid reason to terminate you down the road.
There are times, however, that witty answers may not be enough for the prying interviewer.  If this is the case, you may follow these steps:

  1. Inform the employer that the question is illegal.  While most people wouldn’t dare correct an interviewer, it can be tactfully stated in a non-accusing way.
  2. Answer the question.  Now that you have informed them of the question being illegal, the employer would be in violation of your civil rights if the information is used against you.
  3. If you are offended, you can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Office.

Be aware that taking this stance for your civil rights is courageous and may cost you the opportunity for employment.  However, if an employer is left in the dark ages and has no qualms about violating your rights, it might be best to seek employment elsewhere.

Contractor at Airports Settles Suit in Bias Case

Published: March 12, 2008

DALLAS — Allied Aviation Services, which fuels planes at airports nationwide, agreed on Tuesday to pay $1.9 million to settle a discrimination lawsuit begun by 15 black and Hispanic employees at its Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport facility who said they had been forced to endure racial slurs and other harassment.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press: Eric Mitchel and Diana Ochoa spoke Tuesday in Dallas on the settlement of a discrimination lawsuit against Allied Aviation Services. Ms. Ochoa is the widow of Francisco Ochoa, a plaintiff

The company, which did not acknowledge any wrongdoing, also agreed to conduct sensitivity and diversity training for all of its employees in the United States for the next three years. The settlement was announced at a news conference outside the Dallas district office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which had filed a suit on behalf of the workers.
The settlement is the largest race and national origin discrimination case ever resolved by the Dallas office, Suzanne M. Anderson, the agency’s supervisory trial lawyer, said.
“What made this case so repulsive was not just the egregious conduct against blacks and Hispanics by their co-workers but also management’s acquiescence to the harassment,” she said in a prepared statement.
The company could not be reached for comment at its headquarters in New York. An operator at its facility at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport said, “I’ve been instructed that there is no comment from this station.”
A former Dallas Cowboys running back, Eric Mitchel, began the lawsuit after finding his name and the names of four other black employees on a bathroom wall underneath the title “hit list,” which included a racial epithet.
He said at the news conference that he had reported the threat to the airport police but had been told by Allied management “if I didn’t like what was going on, I could leave.” It was one of many incidents that Mr. Mitchel said had caused him to compare the work environment at Allied to that of a modern-day plantation.
Other Allied employees cited a pattern of discrimination and civil rights violations. Ku Klux Klan membership cards were routinely brandished by white employees, and nooses and drawings of swastikas were commonplace, according to their suit. When boarding shuttles, Hispanics were told to ride in the back of the bus, it said.
Carl Gaines, a black employee, discovered racial slurs and other derogatory remarks on the fuel panel of an American Airlines jet he was servicing, the suit said. To his surprise, he realized that the epithets singled him out by name.
Francisco Ochoa, a Hispanic employee, went into a meeting with a supervisor to discuss the conditions, only to find himself depicted in a racially offensive cartoon on display under glass on the manager’s desk, according to the suit. The mental anguish so traumatized Mr. Ochoa, a former marine, that he was later hospitalized for two weeks, said Sara W. Kane, a lawyer who worked on the case. Mr. Ochoa died of cancer two years ago.
Legal work on the case began four years ago after Mr. Mitchel found the response from Allied management unacceptable. After seeking legal counsel from a lawyer, James A. Vagnini, he was joined by seven other employees as parties to the lawsuit. That number eventually grew to 15. Six still work for the company.
“This is certainly one of the most, if not the most egregious case we’ve ever seen,” said Ms. Kane, a partner with Mr. Vagnini at Valli Kane & Vagnini in Garden City, N.Y., which represented the employees along with DiNovo Price Ellwanger in Austin, Tex. “The level and the depth that management was involved sets it apart from all other cases.”
Ms. Kane added that once the commission had completed its investigation into the case, it brought its own lawsuit against Allied on behalf of the employees. “That almost never happens,” she said.
Allied Aviation Services fuels 1.8 million commercial flights and handles close to six billion gallons of jet fuel each year, according to its Web site. It has operations at 24 major airports in North America, the Caribbean and Latin America, including the New York area’s three main airports.