Two-body part 2: Answering the big question

Posted by on Thursday, December 19, 2013 in Notes from the DGS.

Possible answers to the “Do you have any family constraints that affect your ability to take this job” question.

Ok, someone asks you the family questions even though they aren’t supposed to. What do you say? In surveying my colleagues there was a large degree of uncertainty about this, and so I think it merits some discussion, particularly because the question does get asked with varying degrees of directness. So, you might want to think about what you’ll say so you don’t get vapor-locked and start sputtering.

Even though nobody had strong intuitions about what to say, I think there will be some agreement on the advisability, or at least the complete inadvisability, of the following responses. Responses 1-4 all assume you want to hold off on discussing the issue. Obviously, if you do want to discuss it, go ahead and answer, and you might draw upon answer 5.

1. “Screw you, it’s against the law for you to even mention it!” Ok, clearly this a horrible response and one I would think that none of you would give. It’s probably worse than sputtering for at least two reasons. The most obvious is that you want to avoid bad vibes of any kind during an interview, and even replacing “Screw you” with “I’d rather not talk about that”, and replacing “its against the law” with … I don’t know … something less confrontational, still leaves you using a tone that you really want to avoid. The other problem with this response is that it is apparently not actually against the law in most (but apparently not all!) states to ask the question – its only against the law to actually discriminate based on sex, and the issue with the question is (I think – others can feel free to correct me on this) that if employers at a given institution constantly ask it then this may constitute some level of evidence that they are, actually, discriminating. Enough said on this one.

2. “I don’t have anything you need to worry about!”, or “Let’s not worry about this just yet”. This seems reasonably polite, or at least not totally impolite. However, the first version involves some level of potential BSing that you want to avoid and is again a little confrontational to my ear. The second version is, perhaps, better, but is somewhat awkward and may be read as a little evasive. So, one of these may be somewhat reasonable, but perhaps we can take a cue from the many politicians who rely upon enthusiasm, distraction, and maybe even a little evasion on a regular basis (and note, I’m not one who blames them for this!) and consider #3 (for similar advice have a look here):

3. “Well, I’m really excited about the department, and will be discussing it with my family. We are all thinking about the many great possibilities here and if things progress we’ll definitely look forward to working with the department to make this happen!” I think the key here is to be positive and use the opportunity to hint that you are going to be reasonable to negotiate with. Of course the wording you use here may imply that you do have a two-body problem, and if the person you’re talking to doesn’t take the hint to hold off, they may follow up and ask you for details. You might then say that your spouse is, for now, exploring opportunities on their own (which is surely true unless they are being more lackadaisical than I’d recommend) and that you’ll definitely coordinate with the department if, down the road, you need some help.

4. If you want to cut back on the hinting, how about “Well, I’m very excited about the department, and am really going to be working hard to see if this can happen. I will definitely keep you in the loop if anything comes up that will be a barrier” … maybe add something like “but for now, I’d like to focus on some of the more immediate issues such as…”? This add-in might work well for #3 as well and has the advantage of moving the conversation on to something you want to discuss.

Other suggestions I’ve heard would be to make a joke about it, although this may require very quick thinking to avoid disaster. I suppose you could follow the character Maebe’s approach to getting flummoxed in the show Arrested Development and blurt out “So, marry me!” That would be remembered…

In any case, the key is to be positive and avoid saying things that could put you in an awkward spot. And if you are actually going to tell them about your spouse, how about this:

5. “We are working together to find the best possible solution for our family, and are all very excited about the possibility of coming here…” Then, you can talk about what your spouse does and make clear that you would welcome any help they may be able to offer. Like I’ve said before, avoid coming off like you are making demands, especially if this is one of those situations where help for your spouse will be a heavy lift and it will be difficult for you to even consider the job if they can’t come up with something. These heavy-lift situations will require some tact because some people may be irked that you did not mention this earlier (especially in the case where you are asked during an exit interview).

A general principle here is to assume that people asking you this are trying to help you and their department at the same time. Even if their motives are not so pure and they are just being old fashioned and insensitive (and the apparent tone of at least one recently-asked spouse question I heard about leads me to say this) it does you no good to aggravate them, and even if they are completely trying to derail you to avoid family hassles, I think you at least want to stay sharp and get the ball in your court offer-wise … or maybe at least just practice handling tough questions well.

As usual, email questions or comments, or put them in the comment field below (assuming it works).



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