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posted: 8/10/2014 1:01 AM

Work Advice: Sticky political wickets

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Reader 1: Is it legal to ask a local government employee applying for a supervisory position if there is anything about the applicant that could cause a higher-powered elected county official any embarrassment? I don't know what the elected official considers embarrassing, so it is difficult to respond. Can you suggest an appropriate answer?

A: The question as you've written it is legal to ask, although the motives may be dodgy. Perhaps the interviewer is trying to back into a question that could be discriminatory if asked directly -- one about your faith, for example, or (in some jurisdictions) your sexual orientation. Maybe the interviewer is alluding to personal biases held by the official that aren't illegal but could make for an uncomfortable working environment.

You can probably deduce from the elected official's performance record -- or from the county you're in -- what he or she would consider "embarrassing" in a subordinate. If it's something that will come up in a background check, such as a criminal conviction, consider addressing it up front. Otherwise, if you're confident your character and behavior meet a reasonable standard: "I can't think of anything about me that should cause embarrassment to those I represent."

Reader 2: I work at a small community college where most of my co-workers are more politically conservative than I am. At a recent meeting with my boss, I expressed my excitement about a hire I'd made that adds diversity to my office. I said the only thing that would have made the selection sweeter was if the hire spoke Spanish. Then I noted that it might be wise for my staff to learn Spanish, as census data indicate a major shift in our demographics. My supervisor's response: "No, if they come to the United States, they need to learn English. I'm tired of having to accommodate." Am I being too sensitive? If not, what would have been the best response?

A: I'm not sure if you were just tweaking your boss, but making your staff learn Spanish would be like my editor making me take up trigonometry: unfair and likely to breed resentment.

Unless your boss is actively discriminating against certain applicants, you don't need to engage over one quasi-xenophobic outburst. But you could acknowledge changing demographics by lobbying to establish a bilingual student liaison, or by making multilingual fluency a plus for future hires. Just make sure the main purpose is not to slap on a fresh coat of diversity, but to better serve and attract new students -- similar to offering evening classes for students with day jobs, or on-campus care for students with young children. That's not politics; it's prudent business.

Thanks to Sharon Snyder, of the law firm Ober Kaler, based in Baltimore.

Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.

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