Friday, March 4, 2016

What is an employer allowed to ask, once the employee is hired?

From the inbox, an interesting question, paraphrased as such:
If the boss likes to ask other employees about their life plans (marriage, children) in open forums, is that legal? What should employees do in this situation? 
I have to say, I have never been asked that question by my boss, and if I were asked, I would probably feel the need to answer vaguely or politely demur answering. But I tend to be deferential to authority, and only if pressed, I would probably feel the need to say, "That is not your concern, sir." 

It is important to note: this is NOT a question about interviews, this is a question about "questions from your boss, once you are hired." 

Readers, what say you? 


  1. I would guess that those questions are illegal, as they could be viewed as potentially discriminatory. At the very least, the employer is treading on dangerous ground. I would be tempted to (politely) tell them to mind their own business. In my 27 years of working life, I have never been asked such a question, and I would not expect to be asked it, nor would I ask it of anyone else.

  2. He can ask but you don't need to answer. It is better to stay polite and vague rather than straight in his face. He probably has some nutty psychology/management theory, or he is just nosy.

    Get a little notebook and write down whenever he acts inappropriately, with a date, time of day, circumstances and a short description. This will come handy in a irreparable conflict with your boss - for example when he gives you shitty performance review and you ask to be re-assigned to someone else, when you fight for your job or after a layoff, for getting a better settlement through lawyers

  3. I agree it can be negative but not always as think so much depends on the context and consequences around such situations. I actually doubt asking would be illegal unless specific to the job or promotion requirements in most cases and would see greater caution needed for females vs males. Also unclear what open forums might be . Certainly these line of questions in the middle of a team meeting would be inappropriate making most people uncomfortable and indeed call in to question management/person skills however what if its at a lunch with several group members or even perhaps during pre- or post meeting chats? If truly recent new hire or changed boss it could be an effort to get to know someone better and even discern motivations, not to hold against people but to aid in understanding and motivating that individual. If you have to supervise several people knowing this information more widely can help in developing and maintaining good group dynamics in shared commonalities and frankly often these answers will come out even without asking direct questions. It more matters any responses and outcomes that could be tied to acts of discrimination (so do keep in mind and look for patterns). Hard to say what to do however seek to politely defer to a more private setting where then directly tell them made you uncomfortable while try to get to reason they are asking (and hope purpose grounded in desire to establish good relationships).

  4. I'm not sure about the specific context of this question, but, in general, I think it's a good thing to be in a friendly relationship with your boss and other coworkers, which means you learn a little about each other's personal life, interests outside of work, etc. For a majority of people, their spouse and children are a major part of their personal life, so it is natural that these topics would come up. I understand some people find these issues to be sensitive, so one should be careful not to pry, but social skills are generally not a prerequisite for becoming a supervisor so I would not assume a bad motive for what could just be a lack of tact.

    Having worked in environments where everyone is friendly and gets to know each other, and also having worked in environments where everyone focuses 100% on their work with no social interaction, I much prefer the former.

    1. If your boss asked you "Do you plan to have kids?" after you had been working for them for a couple of years, how would you answer such a question?

      I would answer "Uhhhhhhhhh, I haven't thought that far ahead" or some such lie, but it would be a lie, and I would not be interested in giving a real answer to my supervisor.

    2. But yeah, I like having good conversations/relationships with coworkers - it beats the heck out of the alternative.

  5. I'd be interested from hearing from the person who posed the question - what do they mean by 'the boss likes to ask questions' and 'in an open forum'. Do they mean the boss is making small talk at lunchtime, and just asks in a jolly manner about when a person is gonna finally get around to having kids, getting married, settling down, etc?
    Even this, though, is skirting way too close to resembling discrimination based on a person's marital status, since it's not known how the boss might use this information. What if he or she thinks (erroneously) that a person isn't a real responsible adult until they've married and had children. What if he or she thinks divorce is wrong and no responsible person would ever choose this option?

    I once casually mentioned to a new boss that I was divorced (I think I was talking about a kitchen renovation that the ex-husband and I had done in the past, and I just added that we weren't married anymore). I watched the look of disgust come over on her face, as she offered me her condolences. I didn't know at that time that she was a staunch conservative with strong views about marriage.

    1. It's a fine line, isn't it?
      Maybe it's wise to base the kind of sharing you are willing to engage in with your boss on what they have told you about their own personal life. If they like to chat about their children, family, religion, and weekend plans, it's probably safe to answer their questions if you want to and if you are comfortable. If you are not comfortable, though, by all means, politely demur. This sounds like a judgement call.

    2. I'm Anon 11:15 from above.
      Yes it is a fine line. IIRC, my boss and I were talking about home remodeling, since she and her husband were doing a lot of work around their house. That's how I mentioned about the kitchen remodeling in my former home in another city. She already knew that I lived alone in an apartment, so she would have been confused as to how I knew about the redoing a kitchen, which seems like such an innocuous subject to talk about.
      Well, this just illustrates how easy it is to mention something about your personal life, that is at odds with the values of your boss.
      Back to the original poster - I've been thinking about the boss asking about employees' plans to have children. What if he/she is asking someone who is struggling with fertility problems? Or has lost a child? (I've worked with a woman who had lost her second child).
      The more I think about it, the more I think it's just wrong for a boss to be asking such personal questions. It may not expressly be illegal, but it's just rude and unnecessary to people being able to do their jobs.
      In an equal vein - I've had bosses who want to know way too much about employees' health problems.

    3. That's a fair point. There's definitely no obligation to answer questions that don't pertain to work.
      I have had both kinds of boss: The kind I could talk to, within some boundaries, and the kind that I absolutely could not trust. The former is, at least in my experience, a much more bearable situation. There's less anxiety about accidentally letting things slip.

  6. I suspect "Sod off, Swampy" isn't the right answer, but it would be close to the top if pressed.

  7. I'd be upset if a boss asked me that sort of question. It's actually pretty rude -- especially if you do not know a person very well! If I had a boss like that, I would consider it a red flag and be questioning his/her social skills and worried that he/she may violate other boundaries. Though, I suppose it could be a misunderstanding if he/she is from a culture where that sort of prying is common. Nevertheless, it is something to keep an eye on.

    A good answer to those sorts of questions is a curt "why do you ask?". It puts the person on the defensive and highlights the rudeness of the question itself in an assertive way.

  8. To me the intent of the questioning matters and my answer would depend on my relationship with my supervisor.

    If it is strictly on the job, in a corporation, and all social functions are company sponsored then I would be definitely uncomfortable with that question and avoid answering.

    If I worked in a small, more tight-knit place, maybe owner operated, and when my relationship with the owned started well before employment, then maybe I would open up a bit more.

    My degree of comfort depends on my belief whether this information can be used to judge me or discriminate against me and will become part of my permanent file.

    So, yes, "why do you ask?" needs a good answer.

  9. Lie and match it to whatever your employer thinks is the best "cultural fit". Employers want your investment(house, kids) to an area and them to keep you dependent and create a barrier to you seeking greener pastures.

    You might view it as a temporary job, but if you pretend you are in it for the longer run, you are more likely to fall into your employers box of an ideal employee, and get promoted which will only help you if you are seeking greener pastures.

    Antagonizing them by implying discrimination won't do anything positive in regards to your career.

    When I was in my early 20s and hustling my way up the corporate ladder, every employer thought I was house shopping when really I was remaining as mobile as possible to take advantage of other opportunities.

  10. I'd probably give a joking answer:
    "Start a family? [Departmental Sub-unit] *is* my family!"
    "I'm married to the job."
    "Looking after [Line Manager] is challenging enough - I don't want to be looking after children, too."