(Adapted from Iserson’s Getting Into a Residency: A Guide for Medical Students, 8th edition, Galen Press April 2013. http://bit.ly/17iIQAd)
Interviewers continue to ask many applicants blatantly illegal questions. Those are questions barred from pre-employment screening by federal and state civil rights acts. They include questions about your race, sex, age, height, weight, national origin, military discharge status, arrest record, marital status or who lives with you, physical disability, and religion. They cannot ask about these topics unless they directly affect the job requirements or you bring them up in the interview or your written materials.
One survey found that 86% of residency applicants had been asked illegal questions. The most common of these are about marriage and family plans. Indeed, asking women about childbearing and childcare is the most common gaffe interviewers make.
Another set of illegal questions relates to disabilities. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, even if an individual has a visible disability (for example, uses a wheelchair or guide dog) or discloses voluntarily that he or she has a disability, the interviewer may not ask about its nature, its severity, the condition causing the disability, the prognosis, or treatments. However, they may ask about the applicant’s ability to satisfy essential functions or requirements of the position, as long as all applicants are asked the same questions.
Since illegal questions are still being asked of all applicants (why this is allowed to continue is uncertain), it is important for you to be prepared for these questions.
How Should You React to Illegal Questions?
First, remember that, in general, the programs are not being malicious in their use of these questions. Many times they are merely ignorant of the law. There is a fine line between questions that are illegal and those that are simply inept, curious, or friendly. Don’t approach these questions in a hostile manner. Second, look over your Dean’s letter, transcript, and other reference letters. How much new information are you supplying by answering these questions? Probably not much.
If you are asked these questions, there are three possible ways to respond:
Refuse to answer the query, perhaps stating that it is illegal to ask such questions or that it is none of the interviewer’s business. Such an answer, however, while it is perfectly correct and legitimate, is likely to ensure that you will not get a residency position at that site.
Finesse the question. One way to do this is to ask the interviewer whether this information is really pertinent to obtaining a residency position. This gives the interviewer, who probably has been poorly prepared to do this type of interviewing, a chance to back off and save face at the same time. However, finessing a question must be handled with skill. Smile and be very pleasant while you parry these pointed questions. If you handle it correctly, you will still be a viable candidate for the program.
Answer the question. Most applicants take this tack, both in the medical field and in other employment situations. You can use either direct or indirect answers. For example, if asked about plans for a family and children, the direct answer might be “I plan to have children near the end of my residency.” Since you might find this option distasteful, you could use an indirect answer, such as “My training comes first.” These answers usually will not jeopardize your chance of obtaining a residency training position.