Ilene Schuss – A Little Less Illegality, a Little More Honesty

Story of a crazy, but successful interview I had:  How I overcame illegal questions asked of me during my interview

Back in 1989, I was looking to find a job on Long Island, enabling my return home after nearly a decade in Chicago. It would give me the chance I was looking for to put thousands of miles between myself and my soon-to-be ex, while also giving me the ability to be with my family, which I had missed seeing very much for all those years.

I found a very promising job by answering a Newsday employment ad that my parents brought to my attention. It was such a great fit that the prospective employer paid to fly me in after the phone interview went well. It also didn’t hurt that salaries were lower in Illinois than New York, so I would be getting quite an increase over my former pay if I took the job.

One of the interviewers—the head of the Information Technology Department—bore an uncanny resemblance to Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). Though he was Italian, not Irish (like Carroll was), his way of expressing himself and even his voice made me do quite a double take. I resisted asking him if he had ever been mistaken for Archie, figuring it would not help me get the job.

Savvy job applicants and interviewers know there are certain questions that are legal to ask…and those that are not. The latter questions tend to be about your personal life if that has no bearing on the job itself. For example, they are not supposed to ask you about your marital status or about your spouse’s employment. When you’re being interviewed, it can be rather touchy not to answer. However, refusing to respond or calling them out on the illegality of their questioning can also cost you the job. It’s your word against theirs if you choose to make an issue of it, plus that won’t help you fall into their good graces if you do.

On the other side of the coin, answering those illegal, inappropriate questions can open the door to further questions along those lines as it kind of gives them permission to explore your personal life in greater depth. Usually, it’s better to deflect, if you can, refocusing the interviewer on job-related questions.

In my case, the interview was going quite smoothly until the guy had the nerve to ask me, point blank, “What does your husband think of you applying for a job in New York when he’s in Chicago?” Keeping my cool as best as I could, I replied that he was okay with that. The interviewer pressed me further, asking, “That sounds naïve. What will he do if you accept the job? We want to ensure that if we make an offer and you accept it, it will not fall through due to this.”

After pausing for a moment, I responded, “I can guarantee you that he will have absolutely no problem whatsoever if I take this job.” I figured that would be enough to satisfy him, without having to resort to telling a white lie, which I don’t like doing. However, the interviewer was not satisfied with my answer. He continued to prod me about this, asking “Where will he work if you move here? Does he have a job lined up?”

Now, I was in the uncomfortable position of having to either share that I was in the middle of a divorce—which I feared would not help my chances—or tell him something else. I chose to respond as follows: “He works for a government agency in Chicago (which I named) and they have an office in New York City as well.”

That was a true statement (not that my ex was going to ever leave Illinois). It seemed to, finally and thoroughly, satisfy his stated concerns. Much to my delight, I was offered the job on the spot! He mentioned how I had an advantage over the applicants from the area as the stock market had recently eliminated a lot of jobs for those doing Information Technology work related to the brokerage industry. He spoke of how he preferred “importing” me from the Midwest, rather than take a chance on the highly paid local New Yorkers, who would likely return to jobs in their highly lucrative industry once the stock market rebounded.

The company wanted me so badly that, as part of the offer, they said they would cover my moving costs, as well as my final flight back to New York. At the time, I had only a few of my personal effects in boxes, which I’d already shipped home. Everything else I owned was tied up, pending the divorce settlement, which was to take another year and a half due to my ex’s stubbornness and greed in negotiating. The only other thing I had was the car, which I really wasn’t looking forward to driving cross country in the winter. I decided to take my new employers up on their generous offer to cover the cost of a moving van and had my car shipped in it. That was both for my convenience and also to avoid raising eyebrows if I had claimed I had nothing to ship.

Over the next couple of weeks, I worried about how I would break the news to my new employer that I was getting divorced. From a legal perspective, the IT director had really crossed the line when he probed my personal life so vehemently. However, from a practical perspective, I was so happy to be coming home to Long Island for good that I was willing to do what was necessary to make this possible. I had felt that, had I refused to answer or made any comments about the illegality of the question, I would have been ruled out as a viable prospect. Still, here I was, stressed from the big move, the divorce, and a new job, so it did not please me to be in this delicate situation. I spoke about how to handle this at length with my family, looking for the best way to address this matter. I planned to tell them soon after starting my new job that I had initiated divorce proceedings, thereby putting the issue to rest. I wasn’t even going to wear my wedding ring, so as not to give off the impression to others that I was happily married.

Flash forward to my first day on the job. I was very nervous but reassured upon seeing a fresh arrangement of tulips and other, colorful flowers on my desk. I was disenchanted, however, when I saw the company-wide memo that was circulated, asking all of the other employees to “welcome new employee Ilene, who has moved back to New York with her husband, who was starting a new job himself at the New York office of his company!”  (They even shared his name and the place where he was supposedly going to work after being transferred!)

Soon after seeing the memo, the IT Director visited me at my new office to personally welcome me. He said, “So happy to have you here from Chicago!  How did things go for your hubby?” I took a second to compose myself and answered, “He’s not making the trip.  We decided to get a divorce.” The look on the manager’s face was priceless. It was a combination of shock, sorrow that perhaps this job had been the reason for the break-up of our marriage and wonder at the whole situation. All he could muster was, “I’m so sorry. I hope we didn’t cause this through your new job.” I assured him that coming back to New York was my own decision, something I was planning to do in any event. I felt badly about the whole set of circumstances, including the mistrust or disappointment now out there about me as a direct result of all those inappropriate, illegal questions I had been asked on my interview. I never regretted answering them the way that I did.  The end result, for me, was a job that lasted several years and taught me many skills, developed my professional and technical skills and, of course, brought me home to my family at last!

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