Common job interview questions that you actually can’t ask (but do)

Interviewers must take care to avoid questions that are discriminatory when searching for a new employee
Interviewers must take care to avoid questions that are discriminatory when searching for a new employee

Prospective employers face the risk of exposing themselves to legal action if not fully au fait with the various discriminatory laws in operation here in the EU. Barry Whelan outlines what not to ask to ensure you stay on the right side of the law throughout the job interview process



13 December 2013

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I remember meeting the HR director of a very large Irish retailer back in the early 90s. I was enjoying my career in retail and not really interested in a move, but had been contacted about a role the company was hiring for and waltzed through the interview process to the final stages with the HRD. Due to my complacency regarding the role, I was quite cocky in the interview and this experienced HRD found it difficult to unnerve me or put me under pressure. This frustrated him greatly and so he decided to ask me, if I had a girlfriend or a boyfriend. As a 23-year-old young lad, this question embarrassed me greatly, resulting in me blubbering about my girlfriend and our relationship. The HRD had a smirk on his face; job done he had finally got a reaction from me.

During job interviews, employers will try to gather as much information about candidates as possible, mostly through perfectly legal questioning, but sometimes through simple yet illegal questions. It’s up to the interviewee to recognise these questions for what they are and decide to answer, challenge or perhaps decide that the company interviewing is not for them.

Any questions regarding age, race, national origin, gender, religion, marital status and sexual orientation are not allowed and are discriminatory.

Any question that asks a candidate to reveal information about such topics without the question having a job-related basis will violate the various discriminatory laws here in Ireland and in the EU.

Discrimination based on national origin, citizenship, age, marital status, disabilities, arrest and conviction records, race, gender, sexual orientation or pregnancy status is illegal, discriminatory and out-lawed in the main. However, if the employer states questions so that they directly relate to specific occupational qualifications, then the questions can be legitimate.
What I mean by this, is it is the intent behind the questions that needs to be examined.

Some of my favourites below come up time and time again. Potential employers can ask these questions out right, but could face discriminatory action from a potential employee, however, the same question can be asked perfectly legitimately, if asked in relation to the job role.

1. Have you ever been arrested?
An employer can’t legally ask you about your criminal record, but they can ask if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime. A conviction shouldn’t automatically disqualify you for employment unless it substantially relates to your job.
2. Do you have children?
It is discriminatory to deny someone employment if they have children or if they are planning on having children in the future. If the employer wants to find out how committed you will be to your job, they should ask questions about your work. For example, "What hours can you work?" or "Do you have responsibilities other than work that will interfere with specific job requirements such as travelling?"
3. What country are you from?
If you have an accent, this may seem like an innocent question, but it is discriminatory because it involves your national origin. Employers can’t legally inquire about your nationality, but they can ask if you require a work permit or if you are an EU national.
4. What is your religion?
Employers may want to ask you this to see if your religion interferes with work schedules, but this question reveals your religion and that is discriminatory. They can ask you if you’re available to work on Sundays.
5. Are you married?
Although the interviewer may ask you this question to see how much time you’d be able to commit to your job, it is discriminatory because it reveals your marital status. They can of course ask you what you enjoy in your spare time, to get to know you somewhat, seeing if spending time with my family pops up.
6. Is English your first language?
It’s not the employers’ lawful right to know whether a language is your first language. In order to find out language proficiency, employers can ask you what other languages you read speak or write fluently.
7. Do you socially drink?
Employers cannot ask about your drinking habits, because it violates the disabilities acts. For example, if you’re a recovering alcoholic, treatment of alcoholism is protected under this act, and you don’t have to disclose any disability information before landing an official job offer.
8. How long have you been working?

This question allows employers to guess your age, which is discriminatory. We don’t see this so much in Ireland, however, when we advertise for candidates in the UK or Europe, we are not allowed to use terms such as ‘Young, dynamic individual required…’ or ‘Up to five years’ experience required’. Similarly, they can’t ask you what year you graduated from school or university or your birthday. However, they can ask you how long you’ve been working in a certain industry.

I was offered the job with that retailer, but declined and decided to stay where I was.

By Barry Whelan, managing director, Excel Recruitment 



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