Career Coach

This edition: Entry-Level job pays the bills, but how do you beat the boredom? Also, can an interviewer ask about your sick leave?

March 3, 2003

3 Min Read
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Dear Career Coach:

Faced with the end of unemployment benefits, I reluctantly took an entry-level IT position that set me back five years careerwise. The job pays the bills, but I'm bored stiff. Any coping tips?


Dear OQ:

Instead of getting down about the setback, use your excess time and energy to make yourself promotable. If you're Mr. Tape Backup, examine your company's disaster-recovery strategy and offer suggestions for improvement. Update your knowledge of related technologies, too: Learn the benefits of disk backup, for example, and point out opportunities where a modest investment could reap big savings. You might want to dress for success, too. Says Dean Ellerton, director of technology at a private East Coast school, "As IT becomes more about business, IT people will dress accordingly. We are no longer nerds stuck in the basement!"

Dear Career Coach:
During a recent job interview, the HR person asked me how often I called in sick last year. I was only out for a few days, but still I found the question disconcerting. Is it legal for a potential employer to ask? Can they check my answer?

Healthy as a Horse

Dear Healthy:

Making hiring decisions based on a person's medical history is illegal, says Martin Ebel, an employment attorney with Boston firm Shepherd & Ebel LLP. What's more, Ebel says, information about sick time may be protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act and Workers' Compensation statutes.

The only time an employer may ask about a health condition before making an offer is when there is a known disability (because the applicant has voluntarily disclosed it or it is obviousthe applicant needs to use a wheelchair, for instance) and the discussion is to determine the specifics of accommodations. The issue of an applicant's medical circumstances should not be discussed during reference checks either, Ebel adds.

That said, however, your recourse is limited. You could let the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and your state's disability and civil rights commissions know about the practice, but unless you are disabled or you've lost time because of a workplace injury, you probably wouldn't be granted financial compensation in a lawsuit unless you could prove you were perceived as disabled, you were denied the position because of that perception, and you suffered damages as a result.

If you really want the job, your best bet is to try to figure out why the employer asked, and if possible frame the answer to highlight your strengths. For example, "I missed a few days because of the flu, but overall I have a great attendance record. In fact, I'm usually the first one in the office," and try to steer the conversation to your strong points.

Send your questions to [email protected]

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