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Advice to football teams should be heeded by California employers

As many people here in Los Angeles and around the country have heard, University of Missouri football player Michael Sam announced prior to the National Football League draft that he is gay. The All-American defensive end received support from many corners, including teammates, fans and even President Obama. However, some in the league still seem uncertain about what kinds of questions they can ask prospective team members regarding their personal lives as they select players for next season.

An attorney who deals with discrimination litigation says that laws regarding pre-employment questions are really basically the same regardless of the job. She said, “An employer is not able to take into consideration for any employment purpose someone’s sexual orientation.”

As recently as a year ago, however, three NFL prospects said they were asked questions by team representatives that seemed designed to elicit information about their sexual orientation. All three, who did make the NFL, say they were asked personal questions such as whether they “liked girls.” The NFL says it investigated the reports of such questioning but found no violations of laws or NFL policies. Nonetheless, the league says it is reminding all of its teams of league standards.

The line may not be as clear, however, regarding questions of “familial obligations,” as one NFL executive put it. He says that “a person’s sexual orientation is none of my business.” However, when he worked for the Colts, he notes that they took players’ obligations to support their families seriously. Therefore, he thinks it is legitimate to “find out what the guy’s facing in terms of his obligations.” The attorney says these questions, while perhaps not appropriate, may not be illegal.

While most workplaces are nothing like an NFL team, many employers still believe, for one reason or another, that they need to know something about a potential employee’s personal life when making a hiring decision. However, you need to tread carefully. It’s essential that anyone in a company who is in a position to interview and hire employees is fully aware of what questions can and cannot legally be asked of either a potential or current employee.

Discrimination lawsuits can be costly and result in unwanted negative publicity. If in doubt, it’s always best to consult with your human resources specialists or your legal representatives regarding California and federal employment laws.

Source: KFMB-TV CBS Channel 8, “NFL reminds teams to mind combine questions” No author given, Feb. 18, 2014

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