Illegal interview questions are those questions which breach discrimination laws. In Canada, the specific areas in which a person is not legally allowed to be discriminated against are considered “Protected Grounds.” Most countries have similar laws, and the chart below highlights the protected characteristics in Canada, the US, Australia, and the UK:
Being familiar with the protected grounds characteristics for the country in which you are interviewing will better enable you to identify discriminatory interview questions.
How to Answer Illegal Interview Questions
For the most part, good interviewers know not to ask discriminatory questions. However, sometimes interviewers are not aware that these types of questions may lead to perceived bias in the hiring process. If you are asked one of these questions, then it is best not to be argumentative and to respond to the question the best you can. After all, the question may be asked innocently. In other words, the interviewer may ask a question not realizing that it is breaching a protected ground characteristic, and with no intention or desire to discriminate.
4 Common (Illegal) Questions
As an example, if you discover that you and the interviewer were raised in the same hometown, you might find that you went to the same or neighbouring high school(s). The interviewer may ask:
“What year did you graduate?” (This is likely a way to determine if you have friends in common.)
Recommended Answer: (In a light-hearted tone) “It seems so long ago, I’d hate to admit when I graduated.” This will subtly remind the interviewer that the question was not appropriate as it could lead to age bias, and will save the interviewer the embarrassment of you calling them out on the inappropriate nature of the question.
Alternately, the interviewer may ask you a more direct, discriminatory question: “How would you feel about working for a person younger than you?”
Recommended Answer: “Age does not interfere with my ability to get along with others. I am adaptable and respect superiors who are knowledgeable and competent.”
- National Origin
Example Question: “Where were you born?” OR “Of what country of origin are you a citizen?”
Recommended Answer: “I am a permanent resident of Canada and have legal permission to work here.” OR “I am quite proud that my background is . My heritage has helped me to deal effectively with people of various ethnic backgrounds.”
Again, this question may be asked because the interviewer is also from the same country or neighbouring region and is looking to find a common, shared experience. Even still, this type of question should not be asked in an interview.
That said, the interviewer can legitimately ask: “Are you legally eligible to work in Canada?” The difference is that this question does not focus on a person’s national origin, rather, it clarifies whether the person being interviewed requires sponsorship to work in the country.
Example Question: “Do you hold any religious beliefs that would prevent you from working certain days of the week?”
Recommended Answer: “No.” OR, if your response is yes: “Yes, I do, however, I am able to work other days of the week to make up for it.”
Example Question: “As a person with a disability, what help are you going to need in order to do your work?” OR “How severe is your disability?”
Recommended Answer: “Actually, I don’t need help doing my work because I have been adequately trained. I may need minor adaptations of the workstation, however.”
An interviewer can legitimately ask, “What accommodations will you need to perform this job?” The difference is that this question does not call attention to the disability. Employers may ask this question to better prepare them if you are offered a position with the organization. In some cases, an employer may ask a similar question before inviting you in for an interview. Again, this is simply to ensure that they are properly prepared for you.
For the most part, employers will avoid asking protected grounds questions. If they do, it will most likely be because they are not aware that the question is in breach of protected grounds, and it is not their intention or desire to discriminate. If you are asked such questions then it is important to use tact and decorum when providing your answer. As mentioned in previous posts, you can use the interview as a tool for evaluating the organization if and when the position is offered. If you feel that the questions asked could lead to a perceived bias then you may want to reconsider the organization as a potential employer.
Commission, Canadian Human Rights. What is Discrimination? 9 January 2013. http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/.
Commission, US Equal Opportunity. US Equal Opportunity Commission. n.d. https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/.
Government, UK. Discrimination: Your Rights, UK Government. n.d. <https://www.gov.uk/>.
Ombudsman, Fair Work. Protection from discrimination at work. n.d. <https://www.fairwork.gov.au/>.
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