Thursday, November 21, 2013

Don’t Ask These Questions in an Interview

And…. What You Should Ask….

Most (actually, I would hope, all) HR pros know which questions cannot be asked of applicants in an interview. However, hiring managers are not usually HR pros and may fall into traps when interviewing. Many times, this is unintentional; they don’t mean to broach off-limits topics.

So, if you’re a non-HR hiring manager, here are some questions you need to avoid and what you should focus on during an interview:

Keep in mind it’s best to focus the discussion on job requirements and/or company policies. Avoid stereotyping. Interview the individual, not a member of a group.

The requirements of fair employment laws prohibit you from asking certain questions during an interview. Or, asking questions that would lead to the answers to these questions!

Age. You can’t ask any questions that might indicate a candidate’s age—for example, questions about when an applicant graduated from high school or college or other questions whose answers might suggest that a person was over age 40. If the job requires it, you can ask if the applicant is 18 or over.

Marital Status. You can’t ask if an applicant is married (in most states)— or questions that will elicit that answer. For example, whether the applicant’s wife will mind him working long hours or whether a candidate’s husband is likely to be transferred. Questions about dating, love life, or living arrangements are off limits under many state laws.

Children? Technically speaking, it's not illegal or unlawful to ask personal questions such as, "Do you have children?" or "What ages are your children?" The problem with questions about kids isn't that it's illegal to discriminate against people who have them. It's illegal to discriminate against people because of their gender and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers gender stereotypes to fall into that. You can’t ask questions about child care, pregnancy, or plans for having a family; mainly because these types of questions are mostly asked of women and with the assumption that women who work are more likely to allow their jobs to be affected by childcare issues. However, if you’re concerned that an applicant who might have young children may need to take too much time off, you can explain your expectations about schedules and reporting to work, and ask if the applicant has any problem with that.

Health/Disability. You can’t ask candidates questions such as: "How many sick days did you take last year?" "Are you generally healthy?" or "Do you have any chronic ailments?" Nor can you ask whether an applicant has ever received workers’ compensation. And you cannot ask if the applicant has any physical or mental disabilities. You can inform an applicant of the physical requirements of a job and ask if the applicant can perform those tasks with or without accommodation.

Race/National Origin. You can’t ask any questions about an applicant’s nationality, ancestry, national or ethnic origin, or parentage. You can’t ask if someone was born in the United States nor can you ask what language they speak at home or what kind of accent they have. You can’t ask an applicant if he or she is a U.S. citizen or discuss the citizenship or birthplace of the applicant’s parents, spouse, or other relatives. You can ask if the applicant is eligible to work in the U.S.

Religion. Under no circumstances can you ask questions concerning an applicant’s religion. You can’t even ask if an applicant’s religion prevents him or her from working weekends or holidays or whether the person would need to take time off for observance of any religious days. You can however inform the applicant about the work schedule for the position, your policy concerning being on time, showing up for scheduled shifts, etc.

It’s instructive to get answers directly from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Here’s a piece taken directly from the EEOC’s website. It was a portion of an opinion letter:

"1. Is it illegal under federal law to ask a woman during a job interview if and when she plans to become pregnant in the future? Is it illegal under federal law for an employer to ask a man during a job interview if and when he and his partner plan to have children in the future?
2. Is it illegal under federal law to ask a job candidate during a job interview if they are married or single?
3. Is it illegal under federal law to ask a job candidate during a job interview if they have children?

As you are aware, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces, among other laws, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Title VII), which bars discrimination in employment on the bases of race, color, sex, national origin, and religion. Title VII was amended in 1978 to include the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which prohibits an employer from refusing to hire a pregnant woman because of her pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition.

There is no language in Title VII which expressly prohibits employers from making any of the above inquiries. Title VII does, however, prohibit covered employers from basing hiring decisions on pregnancy or sex. Thus, an employer may not refuse to hire a woman because she is or expects to become pregnant. In addition, although Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on marital or parental status, it does prohibit employers from treating men and women differently with regard to such status. Accordingly, employers may not refuse to hire married women or women with children if it hires married men or men with children.

Although asking applicants about pregnancy or their marital or parental status does not violate Title VII, a fact finder is likely to presume that the answers to such questions formed the basis for a selection decision. As a result, if the selection decision is challenged, the fact that the employer made such inquiries will be evidence that the employer unlawfully used sex or pregnancy as a factor in the selection decision."

One must keep in mind that state laws may differ in regard to marital status, sexual orientation and other characteristics. It’s best to check your state’s fair employment practices statutes.

Effective and legal interviewing means focusing on the job and its requirements. Keep the following in mind:

Any questions about protected groups, including race, religion, age, ethnic group, national origin or ancestry, political beliefs or affiliations, or disability, may be discriminatory. Also, be careful not to ask any questions that could be construed as implying such discrimination. For example, questioning an applicant about the origin of an unusual surname could be misconstrued.

Don’t ask personal questions. Be especially wary of this during the first few moments of the interview when you and the applicant are establishing rapport. It easy to fall into chit chat at the beginning or end of an interview, and this is often where our guard is down and "innocent" questions may pop up that would elicit information you cannot use to make an employment decision.

Don’t allow superficial impressions to influence your decision. Age is not necessarily related to maturity in attitude or ability. Likewise, a firm handshake does not guarantee strong character. Having hiring standards that are not job related will make your interview invalid. Furthermore, if these standards automatically screen out applicants whose speech, dress, hair length, social status, or personal lifestyle differ from yours or those of your co-workers, you could be in jeopardy of a discrimination suit.

Beware of tendencies toward stereotyped thinking. Misconceptions concerning the physical, emotional, or mental capabilities of women, older workers, minorities, or disabled persons are still common. Judge applicants on the basis of individual ability, not on the basis of any characteristics generally attributed to any particular group.

Keep the conversation on job-related topics. Appropriate areas of conversation during the interview include the job itself, its duties, and responsibilities. You can also talk about your organization, its missions, programs, and achievements. It is especially appropriate to talk about career possibilities and opportunities for growth, development, and advancement that the job offers. Other topics, such as where the job is located, required travel, equipment, and available facilities, are also pertinent.

Finally, the individual’s qualifications, abilities, experience, education, and interests are all suitable topics. Ask only for the information you intend to use in making a hiring decision. Know how you will use the information to make that decision. Keeping these points in mind will keep you focused on finding the right person for the job and keep you out of a potential discrimination suit.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

“If you like your health care plan…..”

And other not-quite true tales from the Affordable Care Act ….

The hits just keep on coming. Despite being promised by President Obama that no one would lose their health plan if they liked it and wanted to keep it, millions are, in fact, losing their health care plans. Insurance companies are cancelling policies as of December 31, 2013 across the country. According to a recent article on, Florida Blue announced termination of 300,000 policies, constituting about 80 percent of its individual policies in the state.  California’s Kaiser Permanente reported cancellation of 160,000 policies, about half of its individual policies in the state.  Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia will be dropping 45% of its individual policies.  CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield will terminate some 73,000 policies in  Maryland.  Highmark in Pittsburgh cancels 20% of its individual policies.

According to expert estimates, some 16 million individual policies will be terminated nationwide. That’s more than 80% of the total 19 million individual policies in the entire country. 

So, what happened? Stick with me, this gets a bit muddy.

The Affordable Care Act contains a provision (in section 1251) to allow plans that were in effect on March 23, 2010 (the date the ACA became law) to continue (be grandfathered), as long as the plans did not "substantially" change any cost-sharing or benefit levels. When the regulations to implement that portion of the law were written by Health & Human Services (HHS), they were made very strict. So much so, that few plans would be able to retain grandfathered status. In the individual market, plans change things like co-pays, co-insurance, deductibles, etc., regularly. In the group market (insurance through employers) these things can often change as well. As the cost of health care goes up every year, employers have to find ways to continue to provide coverage they and their employees can afford, and insurance companies have to continually amend plans and sell new plans that provide coverage and still allow them to stay in business. The regulations put a very low threshold on how much these items could be increased and still allow the plan to retain grandfathered status. (The actual cost to provide medical care (not the premium) continually goes up. The ACA does nothing to control the actual cost of health care; it only seeks to spread the cost of health insurance over more people, thus presumably reducing premium costs.)

The Washington Post ran an article that illustrates this very well. Here’s a summary from that article, describing the allowable amount that plan co-pays can be increased and have the plan still meet the criteria to be grandfathered. The calculations are based on the medical care component of the Consumer Price Index, and the difference in that number from March 23, 2010 and the current figure (current as in whenever the calculation is done):

So here is what it would look like for various levels of copays. If your plan had a:

$0 copay, any increase would be capped at $5.90
$5 copay, increase capped at $5.90
$10 copay, increase capped at $5.90
$15 copay, increase capped at $5.90
$20 copay, increase capped at $6.60
$25 copay, increase capped at $8.25
$30 copay, increase capped at $9.90

This is just one example. If deductibles or co-insurance are changed by more than $5.00 + 15% of medical inflation, that change will cause grandfathered status to be lost.

Now, keep in mind, the only plans (individual or group) that are eligible for grandfathered status are those that were in effect on March 23, 2010. Many, many individual plans and many group plans out there now were not in effect on that date, and therefore are not even eligible for grandfathered status, regardless of whether the plan changes cost-sharing. People with those plans are forced to purchase plans with the more comprehensive coverage and often higher premiums, whether they want it or not. This is also why President Obama’s recent apology and vow to do something to correct the situation will be difficult, if not impossible.
Keep in mind, HHS published a notice in the Federal Register on June 17, 2010 estimating that 66% of small employer plans and 45% of large employer plans (accounting for 51% of all employer provided health insurance) would have to be terminated under the ACA’s requirements by the end of 2013.  Together with the required individual cancellations, that adds up to terminated health insurance for some 93 million Americans.

On Aug. 24, 2009, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a doctor, made this point: "On the stump, the president regularly tells Americans that ‘if you like your plan, you can keep your plan.’  But if you read the bill, that just isn’t so.  For starters, within five years, every healthcare plan will have to meet a new federal definition for coverage — one that your plan might not meet, even if you like it." This is another point that is not understood or talked about: within a relatively short time, the grandfather option will go away.

What the previous two paragraphs tell us is that the Obama administration knew full well, in 2010 or before, that many people would be forced out of the plans they liked – they would lose their plan. What this tells me is that either President Obama doesn’t truly understand his own law; his administration has not accurately or adequately informed him of the effects of his law; or there has been a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. I’m not really sure which of those possibilities is most likely; although for all concerned, I would hope it’s that he truly doesn’t understand the regulations that were written to implement his law. I’m guessing ignorance may be better than deception.

What about the part of that promise that said you could keep your doctors? That hasn’t exactly been true, either. Many insurance companies that write individual health insurance policies have either opted out of selling individual policies, or have severely restricted the number of such plans they will sell on the exchanges. As a result, the choices of doctors, hospitals, etc. are now more limited than before the law was passed. Also, it’s now coming out that hospitals and physicians alike are choosing not to participate in the insurance plans offered on the exchanges because of the reimbursement rate from those plans.

Aetna, a fortune 100 company with $34.2 billion in revenue, has pulled out of the government-run exchanges in three states, including the state of Connecticut, where it is based. Founded in Hartford, Conn., in 1850, Aetna withdrew its application to participate in that state as reported by the Hartford Courant. The company said it was withdrawing from there and in Georgia and Maryland because the limitations those state governments would impose on their rates would not allow them to make money.

Aetna is not alone. United Healthcare, Humana, Coventry and some of the Blues have dropped out of various state exchanges. Aetna will be backing out of the individual market in California all together. Some state exchanges have only one or two insurance plans participating. Not much choice, another promise that hasn’t come to fruition.

Because of the real fear that not enough young, healthy people will sign up for insurance and thus spread the risk, companies are concerned they will lose money paying claims for older, less healthy people. For 2014, the penalty under the ACA for an individual who decides not to purchase health insurance is $95.00 – that’s it – and it won’t be imposed until that person files his/her taxes in 2015 – assuming a tax return is actually filed. That’s another little glitch no one’s talking much about.

You may not be able to keep your health plan, your doctor, or your hospital.

**UPDATE** Today, the President announced that he would allow insurance companies to continue offering the previously cancelled health plans for another year. However, the insurance industry is saying this "fix" could be disastrous. If all these relatively healthy people stay with their individual plans and don’t purchase a plan on the exchange, that will top load the exchange plans with people who were previously uninsured (and therefore more likely to be heavy users of medical care) thus raising costs for everyone after that year’s reprieve. And this doesn’t even begin to address the practical difficulties of reversing course on these cancelled plans with only about a month before the end of the year.

[Interesting fact: The ACA requires group health insurance plans to pay into a fund to help with "rate stabilization" in the individual market. The reinsurance fee is a transitional fee to stabilize the individual market. The fee funds a reinsurance program for high cost claimants in non-grandfathered individual market plans, both on and off the Exchange. So, if your group health insurance premiums are increasing, this is part of the reason, in addition to the mandated benefits that now must be a part of those plans.]

In an earlier post, I wrote about the trouble both the federal ( exchange and several state exchanges were having with their websites. Kathleen Sebelius later promised in congressional testimony that the website would be fixed by the end of November. Well, apparently, those that are supposed to be fixing it appear to be backing off that promise, as well. No small wonder. The Obama administration's adviser Jeffrey Zeints said on November 8th, that the website is "a long way from where it needs to be."

Also of note is that there are reports of security issues on, endangering enrollees’ personal information. While these concerns aren’t exactly new, they are becoming more public and prevalent.

If these weren’t such sad and hugely expensive problems, all of this might actually be funny. Come to think of it, I can’t help but be amused at the daily reports of yet more gaffes, screw-ups, failings and broken promises. It’s become a comedy of errors that has reached the absurd.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Do Americans Work Longer and Harder Than the Rest of the World?

For various reasons, the American workforce, or the American economy and businesses, are often compared to that of other industrialized nations. These comparisons are often done as a means to justify, one way or the other, an opinion or theory about whether our workforce is ahead or behind other countries on measures such as worker happiness, employment laws, benefits, and of course, productivity.

Recently, CareerBuilder surveyed workers in the 10 largest economies across the world to see how their workplace behaviors stacked up. A slightly different focus than other such comparisons, but interesting nonetheless. So, how do you compare?

Many of us in the working world have similar routines. Our commutes may vary, our work environment may vary, but Americans are generally pretty focused on our jobs and careers, next to our families.

In China and the U.K. the typical (based on the survey response) workweek is 31-40 hours. However, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, India, Japan, Brazil and the U.S. report between 41-50 hours per week.

It appears that American workers are leaning toward more of a casual dress environment than has been the case in the past. Only 11% of respondents report working in a business formal attire atmosphere; whereas India reports 50%. The next largest "formal" countries are China (38% and Japan (37%).

Do you socialize with your co-workers? The Chinese certainly do. 98% report attending happy hours or other social events with co-workers; Brazil was close behind with 93%. While certainly not unfriendly, the U.S. was toward the bottom on the list with 41% reporting hanging out with their work buds outside the office.

A rather pleasant surprise shows up in our preferences for communicating with each other. Despite the popularity and ubiquity of cell phones, and smartphones in particular, it still seems that we prefer face-to-face conversations over talking on the phone, or even digital (includes email and text). Fifty-nine percent of Americans prefer face-to-face conversations over phone conversations (30%) or digital means (10%). I have to admit those numbers surprised me, but in a good way! All ten countries surveyed showed similar preferences; although Brazil and Japan’s figures are more spread out among the three methods.

Are we leaving the office at the office? Eighteen percent of Americans report taking work home one day a week, while 26% say they never take work home. That seems to leave a pretty large number of folks who take work home more than once a week. But working folks in the other countries seem to be able to leave it all at the office in higher numbers than we do, with Japan leading the pack with 59% saying they never take work home. The others run between 30% - 40%.

How often do we take a break and get away from it all? Seems like the Italians need to chill a bit. 64% report taking only 0-7 days of vacation or other personal time in the last year. 46% of Japanese workers report taking 35+ days away in the last year; while 27% in the U.S. report 8-14 days off. Check out the infographic linked above for more details.

What does all this mean?

I’m not entirely sure. However, according to The Conference Board, the U.S. was the 3rd most productive country in 2012, behind Luxemburg and Norway (productivity = total economic output divided by the number of hours worked). While productivity in pretty much all industrialized nations has seen slowing the past several years, we are still showing strength in this area.

Are we happy? That’s a question that the The Legatum Institute has been studying for at least the past five years. It uses a mixture of traditional economic indicators alongside measurements of well-being and life satisfaction. The result is a list of 142 countries, covering 96% of the world’s population and 99% of global GDP, ranked from most to least prosperous. Legatum scores the world’s countries on entrepreneurship, personal freedom, health, economy, social capital, education, safety & security, and governance. You can see the 2013 results here.

Norway tops the overall list, as has been the case since 2009. The U.S. comes in at #11 (out of 142 countries). So, even though we seem to work more and longer than other countries, we’re still fairly happy with our lives, at least based on these measures. The U.S. scores better on this index that the other countries noted above whose citizens work fewer hours and take more vacation time.

I guess the only thing I can say that it’s clear that our happiness as workers, and maybe as a nation, is way more complicated than how many hours we work or how often we take vacations. When you look at the factors that Legatum measures, that is well borne out. Maybe we need to stop focusing so closely on just those few things and look at the bigger picture.