July/August 2009: Getting Personal

Getting Personal

This is for those whom we have asked, or will ask, some extremely personal questions. And I don't mean questions like: Are you married?

No. We ask: Are you taking any prescription medications? Are you on antidepressants? How old are you? And most embarrassing of all, we ask how tall you are and how much you weigh. We sometimes even ask how much money you make.

There are several reasons for asking intrusive questions before putting you through the lengthy application process. First, you need to pass a thorough medical examination to obtain an employment visa for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Having negative results on TB (clear chest x-ray), hepatitis, and HIV tests are mandatory. Second, although there is some flexibility and there are some differences between hospitals, most hospitals will decline applicants who are currently on antidepressants, have a history of serious cardiac disease or cancer, or who have a body mass index (BMI) of 35+ (as an example, someone who is 5'5" and weighs 210 lbs). They consider these individuals to be high-risk from a health perspective.

Although, from a legal point of view, we are allowed to ask these questions for international employment, for over 25 years we did not ask these delicate questions. For one, we felt they were somehow alienating. But more importantly, in North America, we cannot discriminate on any grounds.

But after we started receiving an increasing number of completed applications from exceptionally qualified individuals who had had cardiac surgery, or were obese, or were "too old" to be issued a work visa, we realized we had to start asking the potentially deal-breaking questions up front, during the first conversation with a candidate.

But it doesn't feel good. Personally, when talking to a candidate, I first answer her or his standard questions and give out the basic information about the position. I postpone dropping the cluster bomb of personal questions until the last possible moment - usually at the very end of the conversation. I commonly explain that I am legally allowed to ask the questions, I explain the reasons for the questions, and I ask permission to pose the questions. I am grateful to the individuals who say, "I don't mind." But at the same time, I am anxious that I will find out that this great and interested candidate will have some physical circumstance that will disqualify her/him. For those of you who are single, but looking (or who remember being single, but looking), it is sort of like having an unexpectedly mutually absorbing conversation with a great guy/girl at a party, only to find at the end of the evening that s/he is in fact married or otherwise unsuitable.

If you think about it, our asking personal information breaks a lot of taboos:

  • In North America, when evaluating a job applicant, we are not allowed to discriminate on any basis.
  • You cannot ask for a picture on a job application (as we do).
  • In general, it is unacceptable to outright ask people personal questions.
  • You would never ask someone how much they earn.
  • Although we speculate if someone has gained noticeable weight (and even gossip about it), we accept that it is a sensitive subject, and it would be too hurtful to comment directly on it.

All of our staff find it really hard to ask personal questions without revealing their embarrassment. My staff say it is much more natural for someone like me who asks personal questions of everyone I meet. But, even for me, questioning a complete stranger on the telephone about such personal facts is, as our mothers used to say, "Harder on me than it will be on you."

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