As job-hunters, we often stress over doing everything we can to please the employer and secure the offer. So it’s easy to forget that the employer also has certain obligations to fulfil throughout the process.
The laws regarding what can and cannot be asked in an interview are there for good reason. Generally speaking, they exist to protect candidates from an application process that may be unfairly biased against them, due to factors outside of their control.
These factors cover a wide range of areas: from criminal convictions to age, race and lifestyle choices. In this article, we’ll go through each, explaining exactly what questions employers cannot ask.
At the same time, we’ll also show you how these lines might sometimes be crossed, and the grey areas where the employer might be staying just within the line.
With that said, please note that this article is based on UK law. While there is plenty of crossover with other countries, such as the USA, it’s a good idea to double-check the laws in your particular country.
- Illegal Topic 1: Criminal Convictions
- Illegal Topic 2: Health and Disabilities
- Illegal Topic 3: Age
- Illegal Topic 4: Marital and Family Status
- Illegal Topic 5: Race, Religion and Nationality
- Illegal Topic 6: Lifestyle Choices
- Grey Areas
- How to Handle Illegal Interview Questions
- Further Reading
Illegal Topic 1: Criminal Convictions
This is one of the few topics where the legality of questions can change in certain areas of employment. However, the vast majority of the time, the relevant checks will have been carried out before the interview – and so there should be no reason to ask you anything about criminal convictions.
Generally speaking, interviewers may want to ask you about convictions or imprisonment in positions where it may be relevant, such as healthcare, childcare, banking and so on, depending on the conviction you might have.
This is often based on whether or not the role is ‘security-sensitive’, which might mean dealing with large sums of money or working unsupervised with, for example, the keys to the building.
However, they are not allowed to ask about arrests that did not lead to a conviction, nor about your involvement in demonstrations.
Certain convictions can also be considered spent after a rehabilitation period. If this period has passed without issue, you do not have to tell the interviewer about your conviction. If you are unsure about this in your case, seek professional guidance.
The most reasonable way for an employer to broach this subject is to word their question like this:
“Is there any reason why you might not legally be able to take on this role?”
This leaves space for a discreet answer in which no details are necessary.
If the interviewer asks whether you have any convictions, or a similar question, then you could reply by asking how it is relevant to the role.
Illegal Topic 2: Health and Disabilities
This is a very broad topic and has lots of grey areas. It’s also a topic that can be relevant to some jobs, particularly those requiring manual labour.
In these cases, the employer is allowed to ask whether you have any conditions or disabilities that might make the job difficult to carry out.
As a result, they may determine that you need an assessment to determine your suitability or to get a better idea of what accommodations they would need to make (such as adding ramps or a disabled toilet).
Questions employers should not ask might include:
- “How many sick days did you take in your last job?”
- “Are you a healthy person?”
- “Are you disabled?”
- “Don’t you think this might be a bit hard with your disability?”
- “How did you become disabled?”
Essentially, as with criminal convictions, employers may only ask about your health or disabilities if it is directly related to the job.
Once you have an offer, the employer can make further enquiries into your health if it relates to how you will carry out the job.
The best way for an employer to ask about this is something like:
“Are there any specific accommodations you’d need us to make in order for you to do this job effectively?”
Employers must select a candidate without discrimination based on their health or disability. They may only reject a candidate on these grounds if they have made a reasonable attempt to make adjustments and accommodations to the workplace, and have concluded that the candidate would still be unable to perform the role.
Illegal Topic 3: Age
As a protected characteristic, employers may not ask about your age.
If it relates to the role, they may ask whether you are over a specific age. For example, to sell alcohol you would need to be over 18. The employer can ask whether you are over 18, but they may not ask how old you are.
Some employers try to get past this requirement by asking for your date of birth ‘for their records’ and then working out your age. They might also ask whether you have any plans for retirement or when you graduated from university. Or they could suggest, “Don’t you think you’re a little young for this position?”. None of these things are legal.
Be aware that employers are allowed to obtain your date of birth, but it must be done through a separate channel and the interviewer is not allowed to see it.
Essentially, the only question relating to age that an interviewer should ever be asking you is whether you’re over a minimum age requirement.
Illegal Topic 4: Marital and Family Status
Interviewers may not ask whether you are married, whether you have children or what your future family plans might be.
First, these can be used to unfairly discriminate on their own. Second, the answers can potentially be used to gain other information that can be used to discriminate, such as your sexuality.
There are numerous reasons employers might seek this information. Some see candidates with children as more reliable and stable. They might also think a candidate has too many commitments outside of their job to be able to focus on the task at hand.
They could be worried about any future family impacting your performance or causing you to go part-time. They might also not be keen to employ someone who is recently married, in case they will be asking for maternity leave in the near future.
But employers may not ask about it, at all, and must not discriminate against candidates based on their family situation.
They might try to ask seemingly reasonable questions such as whether childcare arrangements could cause an issue, or whether the job might clash with your family commitments. These are also not acceptable.
Illegal Topic 5: Race, Religion and Nationality
Employers must not discriminate between candidates on the basis of their race, religion or nationality. As such, they may not ask about any of these.
What this means in practice is that employers are not allowed to ask:
- “Where are you from?”
- “What’s your native language?”
- “Are you a UK citizen?”
- “How long have you lived here?”
- “Are you part of a religion?”
- “Do you go to church?”
Within this topic, it’s perhaps more important to know what they may ask you. As always, they can ask questions that relate directly to the job. For instance, employers may ask about:
- Your level of English (and any other languages that relate directly to the job; for example, if you are a translator).
- Whether you are able to work in the UK (note this is not the same as being a UK citizen, which they are not allowed to ask about).
- Whether there’s any reason (religious or not) why you might not be able to, for example, work with particular kinds of meat or take shifts on particular days.
Illegal Topic 6: Lifestyle Choices
This is a murky area, as lifestyle choices can easily spill over into attributes that are relevant to the job.
Once again, the most important point is that any questions the employer is asking must be directly related to the role in question, else there is the potential for unfair discrimination. Here are some example questions that would be unacceptable in most cases:
- “Are you a vegetarian?”
- “Who did you vote for in the last election?”
- “What’s your diet like?”
- “Do you exercise much?”
- “What clothes do you like to wear usually?”
This is a topic that can very easily creep into an interview, particularly if the interview is more informal. Less formal interviewing is fine and helps many candidates relax, but employers must still be careful that it does not become potentially discriminatory.
An illegal question asked in a friendly way is still illegal.
Aside from those areas mentioned earlier, there are plenty of potentially grey areas around what an interviewer is and is not allowed to ask you.
Almost all of the topics in this article have edge cases and blurred boundaries.
The rule of thumb is that all questions should be directly relevant to the role being recruited for. If a question is not relevant, it either should not be asked or is actually illegal.
Either way, if an employer is asking a question like that it should be a red flag.
It’s important that you bear in mind what employers can and cannot ask you, and then use your own judgement on the grey areas.
How to Handle Illegal Interview Questions
It’s very natural in an interview to not want to push back against the interviewer. After all, you’re trying to get them on your side.
But illegal interview questions are a serious business and the law is in place for a reason. Employers are not allowed to unfairly discriminate between candidates.
Unfortunately, because interviews are, by their nature, mostly private, it’s usually up to the candidate to enforce the law if the interviewer is ignoring it, mistakenly or not.
If you think you’ve been asked a question you shouldn’t have been asked, or shouldn’t have to answer, a simple and polite way to question this is to say something like:
“May I ask how that’s relevant to the role?”
If the question is not strictly illegal and is in more of a grey area, it’s then up to you to decide whether the employer’s answer makes sense to you and whether you’re comfortable answering.
Do not, under any circumstances, be afraid to say: “I’m sorry, I don’t feel comfortable answering that question”. A professional interviewer should not have a problem with this, unless the answer to the question really is vital to the role.
If the interviewer presses you to answer an illegal question, you should then inform them that they cannot legally ask that question. Do not feel pressured into answering the question.
If an interviewer does press you like that, consider what they might be like as an employer. It shows that they are either ignorant of the law or they do not care, neither of which bodes well for your potential treatment as an employee.
The job search is tough and sometimes times can get desperate, but research your rights and never let an interviewer run roughshod over you.
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