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In Interviews, Deal With Previous Job Bias Head-On

July 11, 1999

Q: I was the victim of discrimination at my last position and settled out of court with my former employer. I should add that I was forced to resign because I complained about the discrimination and that the firm would not give me a letter of recommendation.

I have been unable to secure comparable employment and have been "underemployed" for the last two years. I am growing increasingly frustrated by my inability to resume my life as it was before the discrimination incidents.

How would you recommend I handle in interviews the topic of why I left my last employer?

--N.C., Costa Mesa

A: You don't say whether the reason you have been "underemployed" the last two years has anything to do with disclosing to prospective employers that you were involved in an employment discrimination case. In other words, do you suspect that potential employers have been "scared off" because of the court settlement?

While some companies might hesitate to hire a person who has sued a former employer, many employers are more open-minded and confident that their organizations work hard to ensure that discrimination does not occur there. My guess is that with persistence you will eventually find suitable employment.

The best strategy in an interview is to focus on your qualifications and skills. If the topic of leaving your former position comes up, however, deal with it head-on. Emphasize that it was a unique situation in your employment history and that you have not had any problems with employers since the incident or before the job in which you experienced discrimination, if that is true. This will help you emphasize that the problem was with the employer that discriminated against you, not with you.

--Ron Riggio, director

Kravis Leadership Institute

Claremont McKenna College

Driving Hard Bargain on Bonuses

Q: I work for the Los Angeles office of a Detroit advertising agency. Our largest client by far is a car account handled, for the most part, out of Detroit.

To receive a yearly bonus, the company requires you to own a car made by our client. No car, no bonus.

Can they do this?

--M.O., Los Angeles

A: I do not believe that your employer's practice is legal.

California law forbids an employer from compelling or coercing any employee into buying anything from either the employer or any other person. Linking your bonus to buying a car made by the client would violate that law.

--Michael A. Hood

Employment law attorney

Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker

A Trip Instead of a Check

Q: My employer is rewarding all accounting department employees with trips to Las Vegas every quarter, depending on how the department performs.

The company pays for the plane and hotel and provides $350 cash when we arrive. I would prefer to receive my share of the bonus in cash rather than trips to Vegas.

What are my rights?

--W.C., Montebello

A: You have no right to insist on cash instead of the trip.

An employer has the right to determine the type and amount of bonuses to award. While a trip-only bonus may not be wise since it may not provide an incentive to employees who do not like the trips, there is nothing illegal about providing bonuses in this form.

--James J. McDonald Jr.

Attorney, Fisher & Phillips

Labor law instructor, UC Irvine

401(k)s Now Considered Standard

Q: What type of benefit does a company get from a state or federal government by offering a 401(k) plan?

--W.S., Ventura

A: An employer that maintains a 401(k) plan for its employees can deduct its contributions to the plan for federal and state income tax purposes.

However, employers generally adopt 401(k) plans because they are a fringe benefit that helps attract and retain quality workers.

These plans have become a benefit that employees automatically expect an employer to provide, like health insurance.

--Kirk F. Maldonado

Employee benefits attorney

Riordan & McKinzie

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If you have a question about an on-the-job situation, please mail it to Shop Talk, Los Angeles Times, P.O. Box 2008, Costa Mesa, CA 92626; dictate it to (714) 966-7873; or e-mail it to shoptalk@latimes.com. Include your initials and hometown. The Shop Talk column is designed to answer questions of general interest. It should not be construed as legal advice.

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