Not "Needy" Enough to Work?

An employer should never -- ever -- consider your economic status as part of a hiring decision

Q: Is it O.K. for an employer to judge a job candidate by how badly he or she needs work? Recently, I had three solid interviews at a company for a professional-level job and got the impression things were going well. We had even discussed salary and benefits.

Then during the fourth interview, the manager to whom I would report said something along the lines of: "I don't believe you really need to work, do you? You're not needy." He talked of others who were single moms (and, presumably, could really use a job), while I probably had a husband. Where this came from, I don't have a clue. I would never go into an interview and plead for a position based on unfortunate circumstances.

To keep things on a professional footing, I expressed my appreciation for the interviews, said that I enjoyed meeting the manager's team, and added that I thought he represented a strong company with a very marketable product. Whether he chose me or perhaps someone more "needy," I certainly appreciated his time. I left -- and so far I haven't heard a word. Any suggestions?

---- S.N., North Carolina

A: You handled yourself with a degree of aplomb that would impress a diplomat.

That's hardly what one can say about your would-be boss. "Way out of line," "totally inappropriate," and "horrible" were some of the terms our experts used to describe his comments.

The hiring manager's remarks are not only tactless, but dumb. First, whether you have a working husband -- or a wife, for that matter -- has little bearing on how well you might perform at work. Need we say it? "The central theme of a job interview should be the qualifications of the job candidate relative to the job requirements," says Patrick Wilkinson, a human resources director and co-president of the New York chapter of the International Association of Corporate & Professional Recruitment.

Second, the manager's line of questioning runs perilously close to a legal buzz- saw, says Lawrence Z. Lorber, a partner in the Washington office of Proskauer Rose, a law firm that represents employers. A miffed job candidate could make a pretty persuasive argument that the Can't-Your-Spouse-Support-You comment comes close to illegal job discrimination on a number of counts, most notably sex (outlawed by numerous federal and state laws) and marital status (banned by a number of states, including New York and California).

True, some people believe that the needier the job candidate, the better the employee. But Barbara A. Mitchell, for one, is skeptical of that notion. Mitchell, a principal at the Millennium Group International, a human resources consultant in Vienna, Va., notes that she has yet to see any data backing up the idea that need for money equals excellent performance. Indeed, she says she can think of only one occupation in which a recruiter might have a legitimate interest in a candidate's "money-drive" -- commissioned sales.

So, how you should proceed now? Maybe by letting this whole thing drop. Do you really want to work for a manager who is so -- let's put this charitably -- tone-deaf? After all, if he thinks your household income should be factored into whether you get a job, he might also take your degree of neediness into consideration when you are up for a raise or a promotion, says Thomas N. Welch, a career consultant based in Stuart, Fla. and author of Work Happy Live Healthy.

If it's any consolation, you aren't the only one who has encountered weirdness in job interviews lately. We received a letter recently from a reader who had been heavily courted by a company's human resources office, only to find out that the company owners hadn't planned on having the job filled any time soon.

Another reader complained of a job description that became a moving target. Everyone he interviewed with at the company, including the CEO, seemed to have a different idea of what his responsibilities would be.

Then there was this, from V.S. in Omaha, Neb:

The two company representatives I was supposed to meet were 20 minutes late for the appointment. The primary interviewer met me with crumbs at the corner of her mouth and seated me in a clutter-filled office. She took phone calls during our conversation, without even saying "excuse me." She expressed confusion about the salary range of the job. I still wanted the job, sent thank you notes to the interviewers, but after two weeks of phone calls was told the company had found someone better-qualified.

Well, V.S., rather than envying the candidate who got the job, perhaps you should pity the person.

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By Pamela Mendels

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