When it comes to an interview, some topics are simply off limits…
Whilst most interview questions are used to test your ability to do the job, others could indicate discrimination. So whether an employer is asking questions about your age, or they’re using your marital status as a reason not to hire you – there are a few red flags to look out for.
To make sure you know exactly what you should and shouldn’t be asked, here’s a list of questions recruiters should avoid, and how to answer them if they do come up:
Are you from the UK/ Is English your first language?
Although employers have a legal obligation to check that applicants are eligible to work in the UK – they have no right to ask any questions about your race, religion or native language.
Because although many jobs may require employees to speak fluently, none of them will need it to be your first language. And as long as you’re able to speak and write English to the required standard and you can provide proof of legal right to work in the UK, you’re well within your rights to be considered.
In fact, implying that your nationality would affect your ability to do the job could indicate discrimination.
How you could answer: ‘I am fully eligible to work in the UK, and speak English fluently’
What they could ask: ‘What languages do you fluently write or speak?’
Are you married?
Any questions about marital status, children and future family plans should not be asked at an interview.
Not only are these questions of a personal and potentially discriminatory nature, this particular line of questioning could also be used to determine a person’s sexual orientation – something which has no bearing on a candidate’s ability to do the job.
So no matter what the context, questions like these should raise an immediate red flag.
How you could answer: ‘I like to keep my personal and professional life separate’.
What they could ask: ‘Do you have any current commitments which may affect your ability to do this job, or which may impact your attendance?’
How old are you?
Although this seems like quite an innocent question on the surface, there are very few reasons an employer needs to ask for your age.
Aside from needing to be over 18 to sell certain products (e.g. alcohol) – your age shouldn’t affect your ability to do a job effectively. This means that employers have no right to ask about your exact age, or to let it influence their decision to hire you.
Some hiring managers may attempt to ask this question subtly – by asking for a date of birth for their records, when you graduated, or your potential retirement plans, but these are similarly controversial.
An employer can only ask your date of birth on a separate equality monitoring form – and the person selecting candidates will not be allowed to see this.
How you could answer: ‘Old enough…’
What they could ask: ‘Are you over 18?’
How many sickness days did you take in your last period of employment?
Whether the employer asks about sickness, health, or disabilities – subjects like these should always be avoided at an interview.
The only time an employer can ask about this is if it’s to establish whether an applicant needs an assessment to determine their suitability for the job, or to determine whether adjustments need to be made in order to accommodate a candidate’s needs (e.g. fitting a disabled toilet).
Once a position has been offered, the employer can make enquiries into health, but only if these relate to your ability to carry out the role effectively.
For more information, you can refer to the Equality Act (2010).
How you could answer: ‘Sickness was not a problem in my previous role’
What they could ask: ‘Do you have any specific requirements in order to perform this job effectively?’
Do you have any previous criminal convictions?
There is no obligation for a candidate to disclose criminal convictions if the sentence has already been spent.
For this reason, an employer should not refuse employment to an individual because of a previous crime, unless it relates to the role in question (for example teacher, childminder, a senior banking or financial role).
Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that criminal records checks are carried out by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) for certain roles (e.g. working with children, healthcare etc.), but this should be undertaken by employers before the interview stage. These were formerly known as CRB checks.
How you could answer: ‘Can I ask how this relates to the role?’
What they could ask: ‘Do you know of any reasons why you may not legally be able to take this position?’
Other questions you can’t be asked: ‘What religion are you?’, ‘what are your sexual preferences?’ ‘are you in debt?’, ‘do you have children?’, ‘do you smoke?’, ‘are you a trade union member?’, ‘Shall we discuss this further over drinks?’
This is by no means a definitive list. There are a number of other questions which may arise, and the same themes could be asked in a variety of ways.
If in doubt, remember: you should only be interviewed on your ability to do the job. Any questions leading to bias in hiring (e.g. relating to your personal life, age or ethnicity) are strictly off limits.
However, for certain jobs, some of these factors may directly impact your performance – so are often classed as occupational requirements. So if they’re specific to the role in question, it may not be against unusual to ask them.
But if you are asked something you’re simply not comfortable answering, don’t be afraid to speak out. Most interviewers will be extremely understanding in this situation. And, if they’re not? It’s probably not an employer you should be working for.
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Please note, the information outlined above is intended for general guidance purposes only, and is subject to change.
Need more advice on what employers can and can’t ask? Visit the ACAS website for more information.