Questions you don’t have to answer in a job interview

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Most of us prepare to answer even the toughest questions before a job interview. But what if you’re faced with an illegal question? Are you prepared to handle it without jeopardizing your chances of getting hired?

What questions can’t employers ask?

In general, questions that have no relation to the assessment of being able to perform a job are inappropriate. But when a question touches on characteristics that are protective grounds for discrimination, it can be considered illegal. These characteristics include (based on the Manitoba Human Rights Code):

  1. Race, place of origin, nationality or ethnic origin
  2. Religion
  3. Gender identity
  4. Sexual orientation
  5. Age
  6. Marital and family status
  7. Disability
  8. Social disadvantage
  9. Political belief or political activity

Hiring managers should not base their hiring decisions on these characteristics. Example questions could be:

  • What is your race or place of origin?
  • How old are you? (or When did you graduate?)
  • Are you married? How many kids do you have? Are you thinking of getting pregnant?
  • What is your sexual orientation?
  • What is your financial situation?

How to identify and answer illegal job interview questions, Job Hunt Solutions

How to deal with illegal questions:

You have the right to refuse to answer an illegal question. But if you’re worried that it will hurt your chances of getting hired, consider the following to handle the situation gracefully:

  1. Keep an open mind

    Most employers won’t ask illegal questions. But if they do, it’s possible that they are not being deliberately discriminatory. For one, it may be an attempt to make small talk and create rapport with you. For example, if an interviewer asks “How was your weekend? Did you spend it with your kids?” to start the interview, the intention might be to start on a lighter note and not really to discover if you have children. It is also possible that the interviewer is inexperienced. Asking this could be an honest mistake. It will be in your best interest not to jump to conclusions. Just stay calm.

  2. Stay polite and don’t be combative

    Stay professional and always be pleasant and polite. Bring the conversation back to the main purpose of the meeting, which is assessing your ability to do the job. For example, if the interviewer asks you “When did you graduate?” to gauge your age, you can say, “Oh, it seems so long ago! But if you are concerned about my age in relation to fitting in with the team, I can tell you that I have worked with very diverse teams in the past without any issues. I am adaptable and comfortable working with all ages, races, sexes or religions. As my resume will show, I have led diverse teams with great success.”

  3. Ask a clarifying question

    This is a subtle way of knowing the interviewer’s intention in asking the question. You are also sending the signal that you are aware of your rights. You can say something like “I’d be happy to answer that question, but I’d like to understand a bit more about how it’s relevant to the job. Could you please elaborate on that?” (J.T. O’Donnell, Work It Daily)

  4. Answer but make them aware of the mistake

    You have the option of answering the question but you should let them know that they are crossing the line. For example, if the interviewer asks: “Are you married?” You can say: “I am married but my status will in no way prevent me from fulfilling my responsibilities and doing my job to the best of my abilities.” This leaves the subtle hint to the interviewer to concentrate on your work experience and capabilities and not your status.

It is important when you’re looking for a job that you know your rights. Remember that in a job interview, you are also assessing if the company is the right fit for you. If they continue to ask illegal questions after you have subtly signaled that this is inappropriate, you should decide if this kind of behavior is ok with you or not. It might just mean that the company is not a good fit and that you will be better off working somewhere else.
Sources: 6 job interview questions potential employers are not allowed to ask – and how to handle them, Dani-Elle Dube, Global News; What to do when you’re asked an illegal interview question, J.T. O’Donnell, Work it Daily; and Human rights considerations in hiring, The Manitoba Human Rights Commission. Accessed July 18, 2019.

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