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Job hunting? What you can and can’t be asked in an interview

Attendees line up for an interview with a prospective employer at a job fair in Washington, August 6, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed

You don’t need Miss Manners to tell you it’s rude to ask someone his or her age. “How old are you?” is also the kind of question that has no place in a job interview.

It’s one of several queries that are strictly off-limits when it comes to employers screening potential candidates.

“Anything that is listed as a prohibited ground of discrimination in the Human Rights Code would be unacceptable,” says Alka Kundi, a labour and employment lawyer with Borden Ladner Gervais in Vancouver.

Every province has its own human rights legislation, but in B.C., those prohibited grounds include:

  • race
  • colour
  • ancestry
  • place of origin
  • political belief
  • religion
  • marital status
  • family status
  • physical mental disability
  • sex
  • sexual orientation
  • age
  • a criminal or summary conviction that’s unrelated to employment

Most employers are well-versed in what’s appropriate to ask and what isn’t, but there are still grey areas.

“Some of the more subtle ones are child care and family responsibilities; that’s an emerging area of human rights that is getting protection,” Kundi says. “Asking about child-care arrangements or obligations … can be problematic if they’re not directly tied to employment-related requirements.”

The reason that employers can’t ask certain questions, of course, is that the answers could lead to bias in hiring. And asking inappropriate questions leaves an employer open to complaints of discrimination or potential legal action from unsuccessful candidates who believe they weren’t hired because of their disability, race, sex, or other ground protected under the code, even if the decision not to hire was legitimate.

“Our human rights laws prevent employers from refusing to employ someone for a reason related to prohibited grounds of discrimination,” explains lawyer Kelly Slade-Kerr, with Vancouver employment-law firm Hamilton Howell Bain & Gould. “Our laws say you can’t discriminate against somebody for reasons related to those factors. Employers making a decision on who to hire can’t consider any of those factors because it’s a violation of our human rights laws.”

Job seekers may want to consider familiarizing themselves with what’s fair game. Instead of asking if you have Canadian citizenship, for example, an employer should ask whether you’re legally entitled to work in Canada, Kundi explains.

Questions related to family life aren’t permissible, except as they relate to job performance, says Sheryl Boswell, marketing director at career site “While you cannot ask a candidate if he or she has children or has adequate child care, you can ask about ability to perform the job,” Boswell says.

Here’s an example: “This job requires you to travel overnight about two days per week and to attend out-of-town conferences once per month. Does this travel schedule present a problem for you?”

Interview questions should be designed to determine a candidate’s capability to perform the essential functions you have defined for the job,” Boswell says, adding that questions about union membership, social clubs, home ownership, and financial circumstances are also verboten.

Your privacy is important

Queries that delve too deep are also potential minefield for employers.

“It’s not just human rights considerations that might lead to restrictions on what employers can or cannot ask; there are privacy laws, and that limits the kind of personal information that employers or other bodies collect,” Kundi says. “There’s a requirement of reasonableness and necessity in privacy legislation. The employer should only be asking questions that are relevant to assessing someone’s suitability as a candidate. There’s a tendency sometimes for employers to just want to fish for information.”

In other words, don’t feel the need to hand over the password to your Facebook or email accounts.

What to do if a potential employer crosses the line

So what do you do if you’re applying for your dream job and someone lobs an inquiry your way that makes you uncomfortable or that you know is out of line?

“Deflect the question in a polite way,” Slade-Kerr says.

Boswell suggests being professional no matter what’s said and having a sense of humour, within limits. “Be aware that some shrewd employers will set a very casual tone for the interview, in order for you to feel very comfortable and let down your guard,” she says. “This is a test to see how professional you are. Never relax too much.

“Even if you diffuse awkward, embarrassing or unethical situations in your interview, you may want to think twice about taking the job if you get it,” she adds. “An unprofessional interview is usually a sign of an unprofessional organization. This is your giant, waving, red flag. Don’t ignore it. All you need to know about an organization is found in the interview.”