No holds barred to employers in probing new job candidates

When interviewing a candidate for a job, can the interviewer ask if the applicant has ever had a drug or alcohol related problem? Where the candidate has 'roots'? What grades they received in university, or even which university they went to and when?
In the US, the answer to all the above questions is 'no' (see questionaire, page BF III). In Slovakia, however, where no laws exist governing what can be asked in an interview, anything goes.
"In Slovakia, there are no legal guide-lines for the job application and interview process," said Roman Hamala, a lawyer for the Bratislava office of White & Case, an international law firm. "What goes on in the interview is entirely up to the employer's best judgement."

When interviewing a candidate for a job, can the interviewer ask if the applicant has ever had a drug or alcohol related problem? Where the candidate has 'roots'? What grades they received in university, or even which university they went to and when?

In the US, the answer to all the above questions is 'no' (see questionaire, page BF III). In Slovakia, however, where no laws exist governing what can be asked in an interview, anything goes.

"In Slovakia, there are no legal guide-lines for the job application and interview process," said Roman Hamala, a lawyer for the Bratislava office of White & Case, an international law firm. "What goes on in the interview is entirely up to the employer's best judgement."

But although employers face little scrutiny, human resources (HR) professionals say that most interviewers do not abuse the free hand they are given. Employers generally ask only job-related questions in interviews, and usually select the best-qualified candidate for the job, HR experts say.

"I think that interviews are for the most part professionally done," said Stanislav Fančovič, a consultant for the HR recruitment firm Take It. "People are hired because they are good people," echoed Blanka Schellingová, senior consultant at Jenewein International.

In the interview

Although HR insiders agree that most employers conduct interviews in good taste, they admit that anything is possible and that applicants sometimes leave an interview disturbed at the seemingly irrelevant questions they were asked to answer.

"In a Slovak interview, you can ask about anything from politics and religion, but I think that employers generally don't discriminate," Hamala said. "They are responsible enough."

But what happens when they are not responsible enough? "I had an experience where one candidate was asked a very personal question and she ended up calling us back later wondering why she had been asked that question. She said that she hadn't been able to sleep because of this question," said Jenewein's Schellingová.

According to Schellingová, even a question that causes the candidate to lose sleep has a purpose. "Some employers ask such questions because they want to see how the candidate will respond. How will they act under an intense situation?"

Schellingová added that employers may be occasionally taking such a hard line in a job interview because they have to sift through many unsuitable applicants to find truly qualified employees on the market - a lasting legacy, she said, of communism.

"The older generations were trained under the communist regime," she said. "As a result, they lack flexibility - they don't have the adaptability of the younger generations."

Whatever an employer's objectives in the job interview, the absence of laws governing the job application process has given employers room to discriminate, say HR firms.

"Yes, the lack of guidelines allows for more discrimination in Slovakia," said Take It's Fančovič. "We ask for more information, we ask their private plans for the future. Finding jobs for the handicapped can be more difficult. An employer can ask any question and then he can choose, and he will only choose people he wants working around him, even if it is based on emotion, on intangibles."

Fančovič added that it was not uncommon in Slovakia for a psychologist to be called in to interview finalists for a position in order to determine, for example, whether a candidate would be more inclined to drink when the job environment became stressful. Furthermore, he said, he believed it was not uncommon for a decision between two equally qualified candidates to come down to the applicant's sex or age.

Discrimination undefined

Further clouding the picture is the fact that no clear definition of discrimination exists.

"What is discrimination?" asked Michal Chrablo, a consultant for Jenewein . "Is it discrimination [to refuse] a 56-year-old man a job? He is four years from retirement and he'll need some training, so he may have only a couple years to give before he retires. Is that discrimination?"

In the US, where an employer can not use age as a criterion unless the applicant is younger than 40, the answer to Chrablo's question would be yes.

In the US, compiling a personal file on an applicant which includes "nationality and a short physical description" is also discrimination. However, Schellingová said that the practice was common at Jenewein, and Fančovič added that Take It regularily asked applicants for photographs. Both said that the reasoning behind this was so that their company could better remember an applicant if another position opened up.

"Look, if a gypsy is qualified, we'll cross our fingers hoping he gets the job," said Chrablo. "We like that [when minorities secure positions], it's good for our company. But it's not always a question of discrimination - sometimes it has to do with how well a candidate speaks Slovak, for example. One of our clients was looking for a sales representative to cover southern Slovakia so they preferred a Hungarian speaker. Is that discrimination?"

In Slovakia, no one knows. White & Case's Hamala said that this vagueness concerning the definition of discrimination created an environment in which even those who are clearly discriminated against have little, if no, legal ground to stand on.

"The Slovak constitution, which states that every citizen shall have equal opportunity, acts as a guideline against discrimination," Hamala said.

"But even if you are clearly discriminated against, the interview is often held only between two people - if you sue the interviewer, he'll say he didn't discriminate. Even when it is discrimination, it is very difficult to prove."

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