You know the drill: You submitted your job application, complete with a cover letter and resume. You were selected for an interview (cue a happy dance!). You got up early, picked out a nice outfit, and gave yourself a pep talk in the mirror. Then you headed to your potential-future-employer to shake some hands and answer every single interview question.
But what if some of those questions seem a little … off?
Experts say there are certain questions you might not want to answer — and some that are downright illegal for violating your basic human rights.
What to watch out for
Mark Franklin, practice leader at Toronto-based CareerCycles and co-founder of One Life Tools, says candidates should be aware that there are many illegal question areas that can pop up in the job application process.
“Things like your race or religion, affiliation, citizenship, disabilities,” he says.
Many people are not Canadian citizens — they were born elsewhere — so, ‘Are you legally allowed to work in Canada’ is a perfectly legal question, Franklin adds. “But ‘What is your citizenship’ or ‘Where were you born’ are not appropriate,” he says.
Asking about your marital status or questions about your height or weight are off-limits, too.
So, in other words, some of the big red-flag questions are along these lines:
- What is your race/where were you born?
- Are you a Canadian citizen?
- What is your religious affiliation?
- Do you have any disabilities/health issues?
- Are you married/do you have kids?
- How much do you weigh?
- How old are you?
But sometimes things aren’t quite so clear-cut.
Stephen Wolpert, associate lawyer at Toronto employment law firm Whitten & Lublin, says most employers are savvy enough to not ask clearly inappropriate questions like, ‘How old are you?’
“The more insidious questions are the ones that are subtle forms of discrimination,” he says.
That could mean an employer asking a 60-year-old if they’re ‘up for the challenge’ of a certain role.
“The problem is, if it’s only asked to the 60-year-old, it starts to look like age discrimination,” Wolpert explains.
How to avoid answering
If you face an off-limits or uncomfortable question in a job interview, it can be a stressful experience, but Franklin and Wolpert have a few suggestions for navigating that kind of awkward scenario in a tactful way.
Wolpert suggests offering an answer that redirects from the inappropriate line of questioning. For instance, if an employer asks if you have available child-care, that’s out of line. But what they might really want to know is if you’re willing to work overtime. Wolpert suggests saying ‘What I think you’re getting at…’ before you offer an answer about your willingness to work long hours when needed.
“Try to reframe the question for them so you need not disclose personal information that an employer is not entitled to,” he says.
It’s also good to keep in mind that interviewers sometimes make unintentional blunders and don’t even realize they’ve asked something inappropriate.
“You might turn it around and say, ‘How will that help you make a good decision about choosing a candidate?’” he says. “It turns it around, and sometimes the interviewer realizes that wasn’t a great question, and they move on.”
Simply saying you “refuse” to answer a question can be quite abrupt, but could be necessary if something feels particularly violating, and you’re within your rights to do that. Remember that the interview process is a two-way street — you need to decide if the company is a good fit.
“If some of the questions being asked make you uncomfortable, that’s a red flag,” says Franklin. “Do you really want to be working with that employer?”
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