A Cautionary Tale on Hiring: Finish the Interview!

July 31st, 2008 by

We are all familiar with the recommended procedures for dealing with job applicants. Have a standard list of questions. Ask open-ended questions that invite expansive responses. Be careful – very careful – with any disclosures about medical conditions or prior injuries. Here is a case in point where an interviewer stopped the interview at exactly the wrong moment.
“John Doe” suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and was hospitalized or lived in group homes from 1995 through 2005. In 2005 he began working with Cordell DeGraw, a vocational job developer. DeGraw accompanied him to a job interview at the Salvation Army, where he applied for a driver position.
Charles Snider, the Salvation Army supervisor, explained that the part-time job required three eight hour days per week. Doe responded that he could not work on Fridays because “[he] had to see [his] doctor and pick up [his] medicine.” Snider asked (inappropriately) “what kind of medication?” Doe responded, “psychotropic medicine.”
According to Doe, at that point Snider “stopped the interview and said that his insurance would not cover me.” Doe offered to obtain a letter from his doctor, but Snider refused to reconsider – another big mistake.
Snider testified that he ended the interview saying, “[w]hat I’ll have to do is have this checked out,” meaning apparently that he wanted to determine whether his commercial vehicle insurance would cover a driver using psychotropic medication. He never actually pursued this with his carrier and even if he did, it was the wrong question for the wrong party. Only a doctor could determine whether Doe was able to operate a motor vehicle.
The Summary Judgment Judged
Doe filed a complaint in district court, alleging a violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. He claimed that the Salvation Army asked a “prohibited pre-employment inquiry” and denied him employment based upon his answer. Astoundingly, the district court granted the Salvation Army’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Doe failed to establish the elements for a prima facie disability discrimination case. The district court apparently relied upon evidence of Doe’s present abilities and determined that he was no longer disabled.
Ah, but the law also protects individuals with a record of an impairment and those regarded as having an impairment. Somehow, the district court failed to apply these criteria – both of which applied to Doe. The US Court of Appeals for the 6th circuit has reversed the district court’s summary judment and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Follow the Book
In this situation, Snider should have followed his own procedures: first, handle Doe’s disclosure about medications with kid gloves. He could have asked, “does your medication impact your ability to perform the essential functions of this job?” He really cannot go beyond that point. Once Doe responded, Snider should have moved on to his other questions and completed the interview. It would have been appropriate as a follow up to ask Doe for a letter from his doctor, indicating that he was able to drive and that his condition did not present any immediate risk of harm to Doe or others.
As is so often the issue in discrimination cases, the employer’s prejudice got in the way of a sound business decision. No matter how Snider felt about Doe and his troubled history, his job is to determine whether Doe can do the work safely. Indeed, the fact that he works for the Salvation Army makes the need for open and unprejudiced evaluation all the more important. Snider certainly should have required an expert medical opinion before making his final decision. If after completing the interview and reviewing the doctor’s recommendations, Snider still had doubts about Doe’s ability to perform the work safely, he could have chosen another, “more qualified” candidate. As it is, he responded with his gut and that response was clearly an act of discrimination.