Illegal Interview Questions And How To Respond

By Gerald Walsh ©

Across Canada, there are laws that protect you from discriminatory hiring practices.

When hiring, employers cannot discriminate based on age, race, colour, religion, creed, sex, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, ethic, national, or aboriginal origin, family or marital status, irrational fear of contracting an illness, source of income, association with protected groups or individuals, and political affiliation.

Unless it is specifically related to your ability to do the job, employers cannot ask questions about any of these topics.

Sometimes employers get confused and ask illegal questions unintentionally. For example, let’s say a job requires that someone be able to work overtime, on short notice, and travel frequently overnight.

Some may make the assumption that having children – particularly young children – might prevent a person from working these extra hours and ask, “Do you have children?” That’s an illegal question.

However, if the question is re-stated to: “This job requires overtime on short notice and frequent overnight travel. Does this work for you?”, then the question is fine because that’s a job requirement.

Similarly, if you walk with a limp or with the aid of a cane due to a physical disability, the employer is not permitted to ask about your disability.

If however the job requires a certain level of physical work, the employer should ask every candidate the same question, like “This job requires that you be able to lift 50 pound packages and place them on shelves in the warehouse. Are you able to do this?” That question is fine.

Questions about age is another touchy area.

Some employers, particularly when hiring for senior positions, hope the person will stay in the job for ten years or more. If they believe that most people plan to retire in their mid-sixties, they might be reluctant to hire someone older than 55 years old.

This sometimes causes them to ask illegal questions like: “How old are you?”, “What year where you born?”, “When did you go to high school?”

The only time when age is relevant to the job is when the job requires someone to be a certain minimum legal age, such as bartender position. In that instance, it is okay to ask for proof of age as it is a requirement of the job.

How should you respond?

With all these questions – whether it is about age, ability, family, race or religion – a key question for you as a candidate is: how should you respond?

One effective way to deal with this is to ask yourself: Was the question just an unintended gaffe by someone who didn’t know any better? Or was it the result of real bias on the part of the person asking the question?

I know of one woman who, in the course of being interviewed for a job, had tea with the retired founder of the business, a gentleman in his eighties. During their tea, he asked about her family and what ages her children were. While technically the question was illegal, this person took no offense, realizing that the founder was just being friendly and conversational, and she chose to answer.

However, if it feels to you that the question is purposely designed to bias the selection process, then you should ask yourself whether you really want to work for an employer who behaves this way. Are these the types of bosses that you would be proud to tell your friends about?  

Alternatively you could ask, “How does that question relate to my ability to do the job?” Or, “How is that relevant to this job?”

By simply asking those questions, most interviewers will realize immediately what they have done and withdraw the question. But the choice of whether or not to answer the question is always yours.

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Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and author. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 15,000 job candidates, completed hundreds of successful searches for a range of organizations and guided many individuals – from young professionals to senior executives – to successful career change. He is the author of PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.” You can follow Gerry on Twitter @Gerald_Walsh and LinkedIn.