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'I didn't realise it was inappropriate': Woman receives €7k after Halligan asked if she was married in job interview

The woman said she felt “exposed” by being asked the question in such a situation.

0136 Independence Alliance_90526138 Minister of State John Halligan Source: RollingNews.ie

MINISTER OF STATE John Halligan asked a high ranking civil servant if she was married or had children during a job interview, which resulted in a government department paying out over €7,500 in compensation.

The minister said:

As a true advocate for equality for all, I regret that this incident occurred. The reasons behind my actions that day was to try and be as accommodating as possible to people who have children.

He said this was the first time he had conducted an interview of this sort, and said he did not realise that it was unacceptable to ask such a question.

“But the question was coming from a good place. It was in no way meant to be discriminatory in any shape.“

The executive officer – employed by the Civil Service since 1993 – had applied for one of two posts of private secretary in May 2016 to two junior government ministers in the same government department.

No parties are named and at the interview, the junior minister said to her “I shouldn’t be asking you this, but…. Are you a married woman?’ Do you have children? How old are your children?”.

Taken off guard, the female official answered the questions – she confirmed that she was married and that she was the mother of two children and she indicated their ages.

In reply, the minister observed “you must be very busy”.

At a Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) hearing into the official’s claim of discrimination under the Employment Equality Acts, the junior minister’s words at the interview were neither challenged or denied.

Commenting further on the case, Halligan said:

Operating a family-friendly environment has always been a key ethos of mine as an employer. I allow all of my employees the flexibility of starting late to enable them to bring their children to school or carry out any non-work commitments they may have.
During the course of this interview for the role of Private Secretary – shortly after I became Minister of State – I asked the candidate if she had children and their ages.

“I did this as I wanted her to feel that I would be flexible in terms of any family business that she may have to attend to. Too many workplaces have less than family-friendly arrangements and I always ensure that my workplace is as family-friendly as possible.

“I was simply trying to put the interviewee at ease. I wanted to assure her that I am as flexible as possible with members of my team with any external or non-work commitments they may have.

Ruling

In her ruling which found that the woman was discriminated against, WRC Adjudication Officer, Penelope McGrath found the junior minister’s comments to be “so outmoded”.

She said: “It was ill-advised of the Minister of State to have so pointedly obtained information that had nothing to do with this candidate’s suitability for a position, and a position for which she had determined she was eligible to compete.”

McGrath found that the woman “was put in a difficult situation in a job interview by reason of probing questions which went to the heart of her married and family life which historically could not be considered gender neutral questions”.

McGrath said that the questions also “indirectly associated her with the task of primary homemaker and therefore not as available as other less encumbered candidates might be”.

McGrath also found that the interview process was “tainted” by the fact that these questions were raised and allowed to be raised.

She said: “The same or even similar questions were not asked of the other two candidates. I do not find that the complainant was not ultimately selected by reason of the questions asked and answered.”

McGrath said that the complainant was entitled to rely on a circular issued by the then assistant secretary “that all civil servants can be confident that their rights under the Employment Equality Acts are guaranteed and no one will receive less favourable treatment than someone else because of their gender or civil status or family status”.

After the minister asked the contentious questions and the job applicant replied, the interview moved on.

However, the complainant felt even before the interview was completed “that the questions had been inherently unfair and she felt exposed, having been persuaded to disclose the fact that she had children of relatively tender years”.

This, she indicated, could in turn give rise to assumptions concerning the inevitable demands of family life and parenting as against the contrasting image of a strong, willing and able candidate that the complainant sought to present for the job in question.

The woman described the minster of state’s questions “as being highly inappropriate and she believed that she had been put on the back foot, as it were, in being persuaded to disclose what might be perceived to be domestic claims on her attention which would negatively impact the attention she could give to the job she was at that time and in that place, competing for”.

The complainant noted that she felt at a disadvantage and was placed in a position of either having to defend the fact that she was married with children or belittle the fact that she was married with children.

In her letter to the HR manager penned some two days post interview, the female official indicated that it was unfair to be in the position of having to explain how her family circumstances would not affect her performance on the one hand, and on the other hand had to worry about the fact that the lack of explanation would have been interpreted negatively against her.

The complainant argued that it is singularly telling that she, as the candidate with the greatest family commitment, was the candidate of the three available who was not picked for this financially enhancing promotion.

In her letter to the HR manager, the woman asked: “Did I miss something in the office notice which said that women with children need not apply because that is the message which I received?”

The female official had previously served as private secretary to a secretary general of a government department.

The woman stated that she had reason to be worried about a stalled career that had heretofore been on a successful trajectory and she was now seen as the person in the workplace universally perceived – in her mind at least – to be overly sensitive to her family life.

In response, the government department stated that the minister of state was simply trying to put the complainant at her ease.

The questions asked were not intended to be intrusive and it was intended to be a “getting to know you” exercise and nothing in particular was meant by the line of questioning.

It was argued that the questions were asked in a particular context where the minister of state was anxious that any potential member of his team would be assured that he would be as flexible as he could be with them and in particular having regard to any external and or non-work commitments that they might have.

With reporting by Christina Finn

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Gordon Deegan

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