Job Interviews: Permissible and Impermissible Questions

Author: Peter P. Cohron, BSPharm, JD

Understanding what prospective employers can and cannot ask in an interview can help pharmacists make a good first impression.
The job, or employment, interview is a getting-to-know-you question and answer session between an employer and prospective employee. For decades, pharmacists took part in this process with little concern as to whether they would be offered the job. The nationwide pharmacist shortage indicated that well over 90% of the time, the pharmacist would be offered the position no matter how well or poorly the interview went.

This situation existed into the 21st century. But now, as new and old pharmacy schools graduate unprecedented numbers of new professionals, the job landscape is changing. The current pharmacist marketplace reflects stiffening competition for positions. The employment interview therefore takes on new importance to pharmacists.

In the past, the employment interview was highly unregulated, thus permitting employers to ask for any information they wanted. This sometimes led to hiring or not hiring based on information that had little to no bearing on the interviewee being qualified for the job (eg, the otherwise qualified prospective employee being refused a job because she was a single mother). Following such incidents, the US Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) developed guidelines that must be followed in an employment interview.

Under these guidelines, employer questions have been designated into 2 categories: permissible and impermissible. Permissible questions are those allowed by law that are deemed sufficiently important to determine that 1) the employer has adequate information about the prospective employee, and 2) the applicant possesses the education, skills, and sometimes the experience to meet the requirements of the job. Impermissible questions seek responses that are overly intrusive into the applicant’s private and employment life that have no basis for a determination to hire or not to hire. Permissible questions should be answered forthrightly and truthfully. Impermissible questions should not be answered.

Unfortunately, the questions that would-be employers ask cannot be easily categorized as either permissible or impermissible. Specific topics cannot be labeled one or the other. Quite often, it is the way the question is asked rather than the topic that raises concerns. For example, an interviewee may be asked if he or she has ever been convicted of a criminal offense. However, the applicant may not be asked about any arrest that did not result in prosecution or a conviction, or whether there are any criminal records that have been sealed or expunged.

So, in preparing for a job interview, the applicant needs to be aware not so much of the topics of questions that may be asked, but whether the way a question is presented is legal or overly intrusive.

Other Possible Topics

The only permissible questions about national origin must be limited to determining whether immigration status permits the applicant to work. Questions about pregnancy and sexual orientation are impermissible. Religion may only be discussed in the aspect of whether one’s religion would interfere with working on weekends. The list of potential topics is more extensive than covered here. The EEOC website (www.eeoc .org) offers a more complete list with examples of permissible and impermissible questions, which can help guide job seekers successfully through the employment interview.

Responding to Impermissible Questions

Having seen some examples, the question now is: what does one do if asked an impermissible question? Did the interviewer simply err in asking? Is it a test of my abilities to respond to a wrongful situation? Each situation is unique, however, and the pharmacist seeking a job must evaluate how best to answer. Here are some suggestions:

1. Keep smiling at the interviewer to show you are neither angry nor upset but remain silent. This gives an interviewer a chance to catch his error.

2. Respond as if the question had been asked in a permissible way. If asked “Do you have any physical handicaps?” respond “I can perform the duties for the job for which I have applied.”

3. Politely but firmly inform the interviewer that he has asked an impermissible question and ask him to rephrase in a permissible manner.

The ever-changing world of pharmacy is rapidly undergoing changes in the employment setting. Pharmacists will soon face the daunting environment of competition for jobs and the often nerve-racking employment interview. Despite all other factors, these interviews must be conducted in not only a professional but also in a legal manner.

Peter P. Cohron, BSPharm, JD, is engaged in the active practice of both community pharmacy and law in Henderson, Kentucky.