Questionable line to pursue

7th March 1997 at 00:00
Phil Revell on what recompense is available when the job interview takes a turn for the worse

For Sue Holland the day had been going well. The job, as head of English in a large comprehensive, was just right for her. She had been impressed with what she had seen of the school and the initial meeting with the head had fuelled her confidence. The full interview, with the head and two governors, was going to plan until one of the governors began to ask a whole series of questions about Sue's family and children.

"He wanted to know about my childcare arrangements and about what my partner did for a living. At one point he turned to the others and said; 'It's so difficult for the children when they are shuttled from pillar to post.' " Sue tried to redirect the conversation back to matters relevant to the post, but from then on the interview went downhill.

"I was so angry and uptight. Not just that the questions had been asked, but that the other two interviewers did nothing to get the questioning back on track."

Sue was not offered the post and for several months afterwards lacked the confidence to apply for any other jobs.

Mary Howard, the National Association of SchoolmastersUnion of Women Teachers' principal officer for equal opportunities, sees Sue's experience as all too common. "The problem is endemic," she says. Yet union members rarely use the law to challenge the discrimination they have suffered. "Members use the union as a shoulder to cry on. Often there is a case that could be pursued, but the member prefers to put the matter behind them."

National Union of Teachers union solicitor Graham Clayton feels that the problem has worsened since schools became locally managed.

"Before 1988 cases were relatively few, awareness had grown of the legislation. Since 1988 the personal prejudices of governors have come to the fore."

Graham Clayton believes that, in most cases, discrimination is inadvertent and that governing bodies are willing to reconsider decisions where prejudice could well have been a factor. "We very rarely have to go forward to a hearing ,and most of the cases are resolvedby negotiation. Governors are very poorly informed about legal issues," he says.

NUT members are no more willing to pursue cases then their colleagues in the NASUWT. Clayton says that "the cases we see are probably the tip of the iceberg". One reason for individuals' reticence could be the perception that there is little that can be done, or, as in Sue Holland's case, that after such an experience they didn't want to work in a particular place anyway. The Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality produce guidelines on appointment procedures, as do the main teaching associations. Schools must now take care that they do not discriminate on the grounds of disability. The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act places a duty on employers to ensure that they do not discriminate against disabled people in recruitment, training, promotion and employment.

There are 6.2 million disabled adults in the UK, making up 14.2 per cent of the adult population. The legislation includes a provision that employers should take "reasonable" steps to adapt the workplace for disabled employees and that the lack of such provision should not be a reason for turning down an applicant.

Annie Hedge and Barbara Darling have written a guide to good practice in interviewing technique. The book Fair Interviewing focuses on how the language used in the interview can either promote or negate equal opportunities. In their list of unacceptable questions the authors include: "Who stays at home when your children are ill?" "How often do you have time off because of your disability?" "Do you intend to have a family in the near future?" Few people are aware that damages can be awarded simply for the distress the questions cause. There is prima facie evidence of discrimination if the employer cannot justify the line of questioning. Complainants could take cases to an industrial tribunal where Graham Clayton believes: "there is a likelihood of compensation just for the aspect of having had to answer the questions". Damages awarded are unlikely to be more than a few hundred pounds, but as Mary Howard argues: "If more challenges were made people would become educated about the need for proper procedures."

Mary Howard recommends: "Make the process explicit, inform candidates about the criteria and about the procedures."

Fair Interviewing by Annie Hedge and Barbara Darling. Trentham Books Pounds 8.95

Fair and Efficient Selection. Equal Opportunities Commission Pounds 1 Sex Discrimination in Schools:a guide for governors. EOC (free). EOC, Overseas House, Quay Street, Manchester M3 3HN

Racial Equality Means Business:a standard for employers. Commission for Racial Equality, Elliot House 10-12 Allington Street, London SW1E 5EH


For each post:

* A job description

* A person specification

Application forms:

* No personal or family related questions.

* Even better - all personal details on a separate sheet.

At the interview:

* Use interviewing panels rather than single interviewers.

* Training for prospective interviewers.

* Have a prepared list of essential and desirable criteria for the post.

* Draw up a list of questions - and stick to them.

* Offer a de-brief.

* Keep interview notes for six months in case of a challenge.


* The law forbids discrimination on gender, marital status, race or disability * Discrimination on age, political views, sexual orientation or appearance is not outlawed

* The law also provides some protection to parents and pregnant mothers as employees, and coversvictimisation of trade union members

* Both direct and indirect discrimination is recognised

* Direct discrimination is where a person is treated less favourably than a person of the opposite sex or another race

* Indirect discrimination is where a condition of employment (such as a requirement to work full-time or an age limit) operates to the detriment of a particular gender or racial group.

* Discrimination may occur if a person is: not given an opportunity to apply; not shortlisted; treated unfairly at interview; not selected; passed over for posts of responsibility; denied discretionary pay awards; not offered training for advancement

Sue Holland (not her real name) was promoted this year to a head of department post in the Midlands

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