There are calls to clamp down on ‘pre-interviews’ for advanced physician training positions following claims they are being misused to cull applicants on discriminatory grounds.
The AMA Council of Doctors in Training (AMACDT) says it has received worrying reports from basic physician trainees about inappropriate personal questions being asked during ‘pre-interviews’. These are an informal face-to-face or phone conversation initiated by a trainee with a senior consultant who is on the selection panel or part of the recruitment process for a position on a specialist training program.
The questions of concern typically revolve around whether an applicant is married or planning to start a family. They are being asked “under the guise of getting to know [the applicant] or for workplace planning”, despite likely breaching workplace discrimination laws, according to Dr Tessa Kennedy, chair of the AMACDT.
After hearing initial reports from physician trainees in NSW, the Council surveyed its members and gathered many reports from male and female candidates who had applied for training places in the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ advanced training program, as well general practice and obstetrics and gynaecology.
“Some are being prefaced by things like ‘I know I can’t ask you this but….’ under the guise of getting to know [the applicant] or workforce planning,” Dr Kennedy tells the limbic.
“The questions range from very explicit and clearly inappropriate like ‘are you planning to get pregnant?’ – the implication being you should not and if you are, you don’t get this job.
“Others were a little bit more canny, [for example] ‘is there any reason you won’t be able to complete this area of training?’”
With candidates facing fierce competition for training places, some are resorting to hiding their marital status for fear of being discriminated against, according to Dr Kennedy.
“The overt advice that people have been given going into these interviews was ‘take your wedding ring off, and if you’re asked an inappropriate question, say: ‘no I’m not planning to get pregnant’ rather than objecting to the question’.”
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, employers may need to ask a pregnant candidate for information about her pregnancy to determine whether she will be able to perform the requirements of the job and assess health and safety risks. However it’s possible for a candidate to bring a complaint of discrimination if they can show an employer relied on information – such as the candidate having children – to decide not to offer them a job.
Dr Kennedy says the informal setting of the pre-interview appears to facilitate an inappropriate line of questioning to elicit information which may even in some cases be used “to help cull applications.”
When the AMA raised it as an issue, it was told have defended the use of pre-interviews as a “necessary step in the selection process”, arguing that the formal interview itself “is so short we can’t offer interviews to everyone so we want to know who’s really keen”.
But this is not an excuse for engaging in a practice that compromises selection processes and likely breaches workplace discrimination laws, says Dr Kennedy.
The issue came to a head last year, prompting the NSW Ministry of Health to publish a brochure outlining what types of questions are and are not appropriate in interview settings.
The RACP has since followed suit, with president Associate Professor Mark Lane highlighting the publication of a statement on the issue in the college’s newsletter.
“Regrettably, over the last 12 months there have been reports of College members asking unacceptable questions of prospective trainees during interviews. The College has issued a statement outlining what is acceptable and what is not – and it is incumbent on us all to adopt best practice,” Professor Lane said.
But Dr Kennedy believes further action is needed, such as new guidelines for “pre-interviews” that stipulate they only operate as a group information session in which candidates can ask questions about the job being offered.
“It should not be about asking trainees questions about themselves, that is what a formal interview is for. And then, the questions should be based purely around the selection criteria for the job, none of which includes whether you have a uterus, plan to use it or are married or otherwise.”
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the RACP said ‘does not support discrimination of any kind” and backed employers and the AMA CDT in their efforts to stamp out unacceptable behaviour in recruitment.
The president’s message is clear and confirms that members involved in selection are to adhere to principles including: selecting for excellence, embracing diversity, and rigour and fairness through the use of a selection process that is merit-based, transparent and equitable, the spokeswoman said.
“The College is working on a Guide to Selection which will continue to re-iterate its stance and provide further guidance to Fellows involved in selection,” she concluded.