Revealing Personal Needs to Prospective Employers

ASLO Ethics Forum

This series of articles is published in the Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin and on the ASLO website. The ASLO Professional Ethics Committee receives and deals with inquiries regarding ethical dilemmas and issues, and selected topics will be published here.

Do you have a question? Contact the Professional Ethics Committee at [email protected].


A student member inquired about an important aspect of searching for employment. How much should an applicant reveal about personal needs when seeking a job? For example, should a job candidate reveal that a spouse might need a job, or that flexible working hours are necessary to pick up children from day care? On the one hand, a job candidate should be up front about his or her situation with a prospective employer. On the other hand, a candidate shouldn't do anything that might hinder his or her chance of getting the job.

Let's examine the ethical obligations of both the job candidate and employer. The job candidate is not obliged to reveal anything about his or her personal life, especially if this may diminish the chances of getting the job. The employer is obliged to judge the candidate on professional characteristics, not personal life. In many cases it is illegal to discriminate against prospective employees based on personal issues such as marital status or religious beliefs. Laws regarding employment discrimination vary by state and country; members are advised to contact their local labor authorities for more information.

Job candidates often mention things about their personal lives during interviews, and employers may ask about personal issues as a matter of conversation. The comments made may knowingly or unknowingly bias an employer toward or against a candidate. How should the candidate proceed?

The first option is for the candidate to be up front with the employer from the beginning about personal needs. This will give the candidate a chance to ask about programs available to help with personal issues. Indeed many employers, particularly academic institutions, realize the personal needs of their employees and may offer benefits such as spousal placement programs, daycare, and flexible tenure clocks for people having children. Employers use these programs as selling points to attract qualified candidates. By revealing personal needs, however, the candidate risks biasing the employer.

The second option is for the candidate to wait until offered the job to bring up personal issues. By waiting until an offer is extended, the candidate reduces the chance of biasing the employer. It also leaves the candidate in a stronger position to negotiate for personal accommodations. At this point the employer has obviously expressed interest in the candidate, and may attempt to make the position as attractive as possible. Alternatively, the employer may feel that he or she was not fully informed of the candidate's situation. Furthermore, the candidate may not have information about personal accommodations offered by the employer until relatively late in the job application process. The candidate may be able to obtain such information elsewhere, however, such as a union or the employer's website.

In some cases, a candidate's personal situation may compromise his or her ability to perform specific job duties, such as participating in research cruises, or working non-standard hours. A candidate may also have aversions to specific tasks, such as working with toxic chemicals. In these cases, the candidate should be up front about his or her situation, but demonstrate as much flexibility as possible with regards to performing the job. For example, a candidate may agree to go on an extended research cruise in exchange for time off after the cruise. The employer should also specify in the job advertisement any special duties required by the position, increasing the chances of attracting applicants with the ability to perform the job.

Regardless of how the candidate proceeds, he or she should always strike a collegial and collaborative tone. A job candidate should work with the employer to find the best compromise on personal issues for both parties.

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