Recommendations for Interviewing Job Candidates

Photographs of a Brown University community member sharing their experience with racial microaggressions and microaffirmations.

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I teach a PhD Job Market course on a biennial schedule, and we always talk about ways to combat gender and race microaggressions during interviewing. Over the past year or so, it has also come up in my family development course when we discuss the motherhood penalty, and in talks I gave to the Fisher Women in Business organization at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business. Given this, I decided to write an email to my colleagues and graduate students when we were interviewing for a new faculty colleague last year. I think there are recommendations in here for everyone. Check it out and follow this advice! I would love to hear your additional recommendations in the comments.

Dear colleagues and students,

As we bring our faculty candidates to our campus, we aim to set the tone that we are a welcoming, inclusive, and supportive community. In my role as the diversity representative on the our search, I want to offer some guidance to highlight our community and avoid challenges that can occur in an employee selection process.

First, a list of legal and illegal questions:

Family Status Do you have any responsibilities that conflict with the job attendance or travel requirements?
*If this question is asked, it must be asked of all applicants.
Are you married?

What is your spouse’s name? What is your maiden name?

Do you have any children or plans to have them?

What are you childcare arrangements?

What is your spouse’s job?

Pregnancy Status None. Are you pregnant? When are you due?
Race None. What is your race?
Religion None. What is your religion?

What religious holidays do you observe?

Sex/Gender Identity None. Are you male or female?
Age None. How old are you?

What is your birthdate?

Sexual Identity None Are you gay?
Citizenship or Nationality Can you show proof of your eligibility to work in the United States? Are you a U.S. citizen? Where were you born?

What is your “native tongue”?

Disability Are you able to perform the essential functions of this job with or without reasonable accommodation?

Show the applicant the position description so he or she can give an informed answer.

Are you disabled?

What is the nature or severity of your disability?

What is your condition?

Have you had any recent or past illnesses or operations?

Military What type of training or education did you receive in the military? If you’ve been in the military, were you honorably discharged?
Source: Advance, University of Michigan, Handbook for Faculty Searches and Hiring

Note that these questions can also come much more informally. For example, in talking about my own children, maybe I ask “do you have children?” That would be illegal. Or, in talking about how Columbus is a great city for your partner to also find a job, I inquire as to whether they have a partner, or even worse, I assume that they are married and in a different-gender relationship, and I ask them about their husband (if they identify as a woman). This question would be illegal. Rarely are questions asked as directly as those listed in the table above. Often times, it is in casual conversation at a meal, or on a campus tour, that these illegal questions come up. If you accidentally ask an illegal question, and you realize it before they answer, you can say “oops, never mind, you do not need to answer that” and then change the subject. It is easy to slip up when chatting, so just be cognizant. If you hear someone else ask an illegal question, you can again say “oops, never mind, you do not need to answer that” and talk to the person about why the question was not appropriate later.

Photographs of a Brown University community member sharing their experience with racial microaggressions and microaffirmations.

That said, also keep in mind that if the candidate brings up an issue then you can discuss it with them.  For example, if a candidate says, “I have 2 children who would be going to elementary school here if I get this job—can you tell me anything about the quality of schools in Columbus?”  it is okay to tell them what you think about school quality in this area, and to direct them to other resources that can help them learn about school quality in Columbus. So, if our candidate brings up to us an issue that we are not allowed to ask about (i.e. “What is the climate like in Columbus or at Ohio State for people that are LGBTQ+?” or, “My spouse is a pharmacist, could he get a job here?”) it is okay for you to answer the question and to give them the information they want, or direct to them to some place where they can get the information they want.  It would not be okay to pry further though, or ask follow-up questions to get more information. Allow them to disclose the amount they want to disclose.  For example, after providing information about schools or giving them a resource where they could learn about school quality, it would NOT be okay to ask, “Are you planning to have any more children in the future?” or to ask “So, how old are your children?”

Overall, a good rule of thumb is “When in doubt, err on the side of not asking the question.”

A few other suggestions:

  • Candidates should be allowed to do most of the talking during the interview so that sufficient information may be gathered about each applicant.
  • Be mindful that questions about diversity should not always be posed by the interviewer who is a woman or underrepresented minority. Further, questions about diversity should not only be posed to candidates of color. All candidates should get similar questions.
  • Ensure that you do not make statements that presume a candidate’s sexual identity or gender identity, for example, assuming that a spouse/partner is male or female as I mentioned above. If you are unsure about gender identity, then avoid using pronouns that assume gender until you know what pronouns the candidate would like you to use, or ask.

Another issue that can come up are more subtle statements that may be insulting to our candidates. For example, asking someone “where are you originally from?” if they do not “look” white. Or, asking them if they grew up speaking another language, or commenting on how well they speak English. Or, talking about how great Columbus is for parents and children, but only making this comment to our female-identifying candidates. You can learn more about these microaggressions and implicit bias here and ways to avoid them. One way to refrain from asking questions in a biased manner is to generate a list of questions to ask before you meet with the candidate, then ask each candidate the same questions. I highly suggest this. Also, if you only bring up certain issues like how great Columbus is for families with women candidates, and you do not with men,  you may leave the interview process feeling like the men talked more about their research than did women. Maybe the men did talk more about their research, but it was probably because you were talking to the women about how great Columbus is for kids, and you were talking to the men about their intellectual ideas! That would be unfair to the woman candidate and would perpetuate gender bias.

As you consider what questions to ask, you might consider the evaluation criteria. Here are some evaluation criteria we will likely be using, and you may use these to inform the kinds of questions you might want to ask:

  • Potential for (evidence of) scholarly impact
  • Potential for (evidence of) research productivity
  • Potential for (evidence of) research funding
  • Potential for (evidence of) interdisciplinary collaboration
  • Potential (demonstrated ability) to attract and supervise graduate students
  • Potential (demonstrated ability) to teach and supervise undergraduates
  • Potential (demonstrated ability) to be a conscientious University community member
  • Fit with department’s priorities
  • Ability to make positive contribution to department’s climate
  • Ability to enhance diversity of unit

Finally, please be positive and friendly. Show interest in our candidates! These individuals may be our future colleagues, or at least they will leave us with an impression of our unit and university. Let’s make it a positive impression.

I want to thank my colleagues Tasha Snyder, Erik Porfeli, and Keeley Pratt for helpful input on this email.

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