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Can an interviewer ask, 'How long till you retire?'

Jeanine O'Donnell and Dale Dauten
Dale Dauten and Jeanine "J.T." O'Donnell

Dear J.T. & Dale: Is asking how many more years I want to work before I retire an illegal question in a job interview? — Ron

DALE: Whenever we get a question involving what's legal, we turn to our favorite labor attorney, Scott Gordon of Rodey Law in Albuquerque. Here's how he responded:

SCOTT: The question is not necessarily illegal, but it's risky for an employer to ask it. The federal anti-discrimination laws do not expressly prohibit a job interview question about age. But the question would be illegal if the purpose is to discriminate against an older worker. Because the question might indicate age discrimination, it would be closely scrutinized for a permissible purpose. The employer would have to justify that the answer is necessary to the efficient operation of the business and that there are no alternative questions which would serve the same purpose. Context matters. If the job is "assistant bottle washer," it would be hard to justify knowing how many years the job candidate intends to wash bottles. But if the job takes years to learn — like "astronaut" — and the employer's investment in training the worker is substantial, then it would be justifiable to ask how long the candidate intends to perform the job.

J.T.: Let me reinforce that idea of context. From my HR work, I know that sometimes a company has a legitimate reason to inquire how many years you plan to work as a way to do workforce planning. But the interviewer should tread carefully. So, Ron, should you encounter this type of questioning, my advice would be to give the interviewer a true answer, and then politely ask if they are concerned about workforce planning. That way, they'll know you understand the law.

SCOTT: Yes, and here's one way to know if the employer is treading carefully. The problem with the quoted question is the sometimes-dangerous "r" word. The employer could have simply asked how long the candidate intends to work. But by adding "... before you retire," the interviewer implies that age might matter.

Dear J.T. & Dale: I'm starting to think about what happens after COVID, going on the idea that on the other side of major events is a lot of opportunity. Any thoughts? — Tarik

J.T.: It's true that anytime you have a massive amount of disruption, there will be lots of innovation that comes out of it. This kind of trauma sparks creativity, and new companies will pop up. Also, companies and employees will shift their definitions of what a good job and career look like. So there will be even more disruption in terms of opportunities and what they look like. My advice is to take a closer look at the things that you care about. What problems do you want to help solve in the world? What kinds of things do you enjoy doing right now? And can you start to take a look and predict the future as to these industries? Trying to be a futurist can help you start to spot where there might be job opportunities. The most important thing is to be positive. Like all things, this will come to an end, and if you believe there will be opportunity, then there will be!

DALE: The advice to "be a futurist" sounds daunting. But it can be a lively undertaking. What J.T. is describing is figuring out your passions and then trying to understand where those might intersect with a rapidly evolving economy. But you don't have to figure out the economic future on your own. There are plenty of resources available; after all, figuring out the future of the economy is how investment money flows. So find some experts on CNBC or Bloomberg that you want to follow or go online to investment commentators. (My favorite is Liz Ann Somers, Google her name with "Schwab Market Commentary.") You'll be joining in on the great debate about the future of the economy, and then you figure out where in that economy you'll thrive.

Jeanine "J.T." O'Donnell is a career coach and founder of the leading career site WorkItDaily.com. Dale Dauten is the founder of The Innovators' Lab and author of "The Weary Optimist." Send questions to Talk Jobs c/o King Features Syndicate, 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL 32803, or visitJTandDale.com.