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  • 9 March 2015
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Discriminatory questions to avoid when interviewing candidates

Employers cannot ask interviewees questions related to their protected characteristics. What are the questions to avoid when recruiting new staff members? 

Are you asking discriminatory questions in your interview? 

The interview process is a very important task for employers. It is your opportunity to find out the information you need to know about interviewees so that you can determine whether or not they will be suitable for a position within your organisation. 

During the selection and interview process, it is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of a protected characteristic. Protected characteristics include age, marital or civil partnership status, sexual orientation, race (including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin), religion / belief, pregnancy, disability, gender reassignment and sex. 

As the interview is often the first time you will meet an interviewee, it is the point at which you risk judging them based on your first impressions, which can be both inaccurate and irrelevant. It is therefore important to ask only purely relevant questions to avoid making dangerous assumptions about an interviewee’s protected characteristics. 

Interview questions to avoid  

It can be difficult to resist the temptation to ask personal questions either as a result of the natural flow of the conversation or because the question appears to be relevant. Below are some questions that may appear innocent but actually amount to discriminatory questioning: 

  • How many years do you want to work for before you retire?
  • Do you have children?
  • Would you consider yourself to be of child bearing age?
  • Would you consider yourself a party person?
  • How much alcohol do you consume on average per week?
  • How old are you?
  • How much do you weigh?
  • What nationality are you? 

Although you may just want to know when the potential employee is going to retire or whether they plan to take maternity leave next year, these questions can be discriminatory, especially if your decision not to employ an individual is based on the answers they give. 

How to approach certain topics in interviews  

So how can you enter the interview process confident in the fact that you are not going to ask discriminatory questions? 

You need to be aware of the protected characteristics so that such questions are avoided altogether or re-phrased so that you can find out information without being discriminatory. 

Below are ways to elicit much of the same details without posing questions in a discriminatory way: 

‘How many years do you want to work before you retire?’ 

This question may discriminate against the interviewee on the basis of their age. 

It is important to think why the question is being asked. If you really want to know whether the interviewee plans to retire soon, you could instead ask: ‘What are your plans for your career?’ However that same question has to then be asked to all those being interviewed and not just older looking interviewees. 

‘How old are you?’ 

This question may discriminate against an interviewee on the basis of their age and again is unlikely to be relevant. 

Employers are not entitled to ask the age of the interviewee or their date of birth, except in certain circumstances where the job legitimately requires the interviewee to be of a certain age. 

If the minimum age for the job is 18, instead you can ask ‘are you over the age of 18’. 

‘Do you have children?’ 

Although this may be a way to start a conversation with an interviewee or ‘break the ice’, it is not appropriate in an interview setting. 

‘What nationality are you?’ 

This question may discriminate against the interviewee on the basis of race. 

Avoid questions about where the interviewee was born or their nationality altogether. You can ask them to provide evidence of their eligibility to work in the UK at a later stage in the process. This would normally be appropriate when you are ready to offer them the position. 

The safest way forward is to ensure that you have a job specification for the position you are interviewing for, which includes information on all the necessary skills. You should then use this to formulate your questions for the interview, thereby helping you to avoid asking unnecessary questions which have the potential of discriminating.

Shiva Shadi is Head of Employment at Davis Blank Furniss, where she acts for employers in matters ranging from drafting documentation to company restructuring.