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The RIGHT Questions to Ask

1. Someone told me that I can’t ask female applicants whether or not they have children or what their childcare arrangements are. But, I need to know if they are going to come to work on time. What can I ask?

a. In our opinion, asking applicants (female or male) whether they have children is not a good practice. That’s a can of worms that you just don’t want to open. It’s also completely unnecessary. You can get the information you seek without asking questions that may be perceived as inappropriate. Having children does not necessarily make an employee less reliable―parents may have childcare arrangements. In our fifty-plus years of business experience, we have disciplined many childless employees for attendance issues. We have also worked with many colleagues who had children and showed up to work on time every day. Our opinion aside, you have already answered your own question. If you want to know whether a person will come to work, on time, every day when scheduled, the first step is to ask that question.

Begin by describing the job and the attendance requirements associated with the position. For instance, “The successful candidate for the receptionist position will need to be at the front desk at 8:00 a.m. ready to serve our clients and answer the phones. If the receptionist is absent, I have to move another employee to the front desk. This means that two employees are not at their usual jobs. Probably more than any other position in the firm, the receptionist role requires a person who will have near-perfect attendance.”

You have described the requirements of the job and explained why they are important. Now, ask what you really want to know, “Is there any reason why you could not be here every day, ready to start work at 8:00 a.m. and be here all day?”

When asked a direct question, most applicants will give a truthful answer. Those who have situations that would keep them from meeting your attendance requirements will most likely take this opportunity to disclose. If the candidate says that the attendance requirements are not a problem, you should dig a little deeper and ask them to describe a time when they worked under similar circumstances.

In addition to asking the applicants, call former employers to verify attendance histories. Include recent employers if possible. Even if the candidate is employed and doesn’t want their current employer contacted, he or she should be able to provide a reference who is familiar with his or her attendance history.

However, most job applicants are clever enough to give you the names of three people who will say favorable things about them. Therefore, we recommend going to the next level. If you know people with whom the prospective employee worked who were not listed as references, call them. Ask references that the candidate does give for the names of others who would be familiar with the prospective employee’s work. Getting past the initial list of references will give you a clear picture of the candidates work habits. Don’t skip this step.

Finally, if you are going to ask this question, ask it of every interviewee. Don’t let the gender of the applicant change the questions you ask. Remember, both men and women have outside obligations that can sometimes interfere with work performance. Keeping the focus on the job requirements, not on gender roles, will get you the information you need to make good employment decisions, while reducing the risk that you are perceived to be asking inappropriate questions.

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