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Chicago Tribune
February 20, 2002 Wednesday

NORTH SPORTS FINAL EDITION
SECTION: Woman News; WORKING.
Drawing the line in interviews

By Jacqueline Fitzgerald, Tribune staff reporter.

The next time you interview for a job, think twice about revealing personal information.

Debra Condren, principal of SuperiorCareer.com, says being too open often works against a woman. "Too many women believe that if they don't expose work, family and personal priorities, they are cheating the hiring person of the chance to make a fair appraisal. In fact, they are cheating themselves out of a fair chance to compete for a job."

Condren says she once coached a woman who was up for a promotion and decided not to disclose that she was pregnant. When her supervisor later learned about the pregnancy, she let other staffers know that she thought the newly promoted woman had hidden information that could have affected the promotion decision.

This, Condren says, "is emblematic of a discrepancy between a stated family-friendly work policy and the attitudes of those who actually make hiring or promotion decisions."

She adds: "A man will not reveal any personal information that would compromise his shot at the job. He will focus on his strengths, where he shines, and on why the company needs him. A woman should employ the same strategy."

But what if the interviewer poses a personal question?

Diane Dobry, director of communications for the teachers college at Columbia University in New York, says she was once interviewed by an editor for a woman's magazine who asked Dobry what she would do with her children while at work.

"I didn't think it was an appropriate question," says Dobry, "but didn't want to get defensive and blow the interview. I told her honestly that my husband had a flexible work schedule and could be with them if he had to, and that the kids were old enough to be left alone for a few hours if necessary."

Dobry didn't get the job. While she wasn't sure that her answer had been the determining factor, she felt that "if it were a guy and he had children, there wouldn't be that question. That doesn't seem to be a concern when it's a male."

Janice Bryant Howroyd, founder of the ACT•1 staffing agency in Torrance, Calif., says she has heard similar interview stories and advises that what you reveal should depend on your own comfort level, once you have a sense of where the interviewer is coming from.

Bryant Howroyd says that if you're getting a good feeling from the person, it can behoove you to give the benefit of the doubt on the basis that he or she could be trying to obtain relevant information but is asking in a clumsy way.

"There has been a heightened sense of security since Sept. 11," she says, "and some employers may not be equipped to ask the right questions. You can give the information they need even if they ask inappropriately, once they qualify what they're trying to get at. Some questions may be inappropriate or improper but not illegal."

Say the interviewer throws out something like: "Do you like men?"

That's an odd query, Bryant Howroyd says, but the subtext may be that you would be the first woman to join a large team of men. The interviewer might consider you a great prospect and want to see how you feel about that set-up.

Before answering questions that strike you as irrelevant, try to clarify what the person is truly seeking. Bryant Howroyd suggests saying something like: "I want to be open in this interview. Can you tell me how this information will help you better understand me and what I can offer?"

Or if the question is blatantly inappropriate, you could say: "I want to be open but I'm not comfortable with that question. Can you help me to be more comfortable in answering this?"

Linda Brakeall, co-author of "Unlocking the Secrets of Successful Women in Business" (Hawthorne Press, $24.95), says it also helps to talk about your track record, with a comment such as: "I have three kids but I only missed two days of work in my last job."

She adds that a general rule of thumb for interviewing is that anything can be reframed from a negative to a positive.

Some interviewers manage to be up front without being invasive. In the five years she has been at Columbia, Dobry has been involved in many interviews. "We say there are evening hours and weekend hours," she says. "But we don't ask them how they'll manage it. It's up to them."

Some women make a choice to disclose information early on so they can gauge company culture by the interviewer's response. Pearson Brown, media relations manager for CarryOn Communication in West Hollywood, Calif., says while interviewing for her previous job at a publicity firm, she revealed that she was gay.

Brown had recently moved to California from Washington, D.C., and the interviewer had asked her how she liked Los Angeles. Brown responded that she liked it and that she had started dating someone. "I used the pronouns [she and her] and looked for a reaction."

When the interviewer said, "that's great," Brown knew it would be a good place to work.

Press contact:
Chuck Pearson
ACT•1 Group
Director of Marketing
(310) 750-3400
cpearson@act-1.com

 

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