Interview Questions that Make You Squirm – Questions Against the Human Rights Act

Have you ever gone to an interview and been asked an interview question that you thought was inappropriate, offensive or possibly even illegal? Sometimes employers in the  job market may ask questions that can make you very uncomfortable.

3 reasons employers ask inappropriate interview questions

  1. Employers don’t know better. It may be that the company is small and the interviewer is the owner with no background in HR or specifically recruitment. They may ask questions totally out of ignorance – not malice –  for the Human Rights guidelines.
  2. Employers may have had bad experiences in the past and want to ensure it doesn’t happen again. So for example if they recently had four women take maternity leave they might be wary of female candidates of child-bearing age.
  3. Employers ask these questions as they are a factor in employment.

For example, a religious organization that follows a particular system of faith and worship, such as a church or religious order would want to hire someone of the same faith. Or a denominational school is hiring a teacher. They are allowed to inquire about the religion of the interviewee if the job involves teaching religion or religious values to students.

Illegal interview questions

Except where there is a genuine occupational requirement, it is discriminatory and contrary to the Canadian Human Rights Act (Canada) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and State Laws (US), for an interviewer or employer to refuse to employ someone because of the following:

Examples of Categories of Unlawful Questions:

Canada USA
    • national or ethnic origin
    • colour
    • religion
    • age
    • sex
    • sexual orientation
    • marital status
    • family status
    • disability
    • a conviction for which you have been granted a pardon
  • national origin
  • race
  • religion
  • age (40 and older)
  • sex
  • sexual orientation
  • marital status
  • disability
  • conviction of a misdemeanor
  • Pregnancy

Do I have to answer these questions?

The short answer is no.

I asked Jennifer Main, team staffing manager for Destination One Consulting–a Canadian recruitment firm–for her advice to job-seekers who are asked these questions. She advises people to ask the interviewer, “How is that relevant to the job?” and goes on further to say, “If uncomfortable asking this, you don’t have to answer the question.”

Another approach would be to ask the interviewer, “Could you tell me how that will affect me on this job?”

Mark Lauterbach, former owner of an international executive recruiting and search firm, and now career coach/owner of Jump UP the Ladder says, “The issue is typically that hiring team members aren’t properly trained. Illegal questions aren’t typically asked with malice; rather from ignorance of the law. In employment law a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFPOQ) (US) or Bona Fide Occupational Requirement (BFOR) (Canada) is a quality or attribute that employers are allowed to consider when making a decision on hiring and retention of employees–a quality that when considered in other contexts would constitute discrimination and thus be in violation of civil rights employment law. Such qualifications must be listed in the employment offering.”


“US companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, along with government organizations may have a EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) Quota for minority hiring and so may ask questions around disability, for instance. In the US companies and government organizations may also be exercising Affirmative Action (the process of a business or governmental agency in which it gives special rights of hiring or advancement to ethnic minorities to make up for past discrimination against that minority). This makes the situation even more confusing.”

Canada has a similar Employment Equity Act with four designated groups: women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities, which affects government and federally regulated private sectors hiring practices.

What to do when asked a discriminatory question?

There are three options:

1. Tell the interviewer this is an illegal question and you aren’t going to answer it.

2. Respond with a counter question:

“Could you tell me how my (age, religion etc.) might have a bearing on the job I am applying for?” or “That’s an interesting question. I would be happy to answer it if you could tell me the reason for asking it.”

3. Choose to answer the question

Option #1 is probably going to be said with attitude and not taken well by the interviewer. Option #2 could work well. Remember to be polite, respectful and assertive.

Let’s look into Option #3 further

Option # 3 – Choosing to answer difficult interview questions

I would recommend this option to my clients if they are not concerned about answering the questions–and this is a personal decision. If you do decide to answer employer questions around one of these Human Rights topics consider why the employer might be asking the question. Again it could be out of ignorance or an unstated concern. Here’s some sample answers that might be appropriate:

Are you married?

  • If yes, state you are happily married and are settled in _________ (your location.)
  • If yes, and you have children, assure the interviewer that you have reliable child care and back up emergency child care.
  • If no, assure the employer you are reliable and free to travel for work and able to do overtime (if this is true for you).

How old are you?

A past colleague I worked with, who was in her 60’s at the time, used to say, “Age is only a number!” I always admired her attitude to growing older. She would happily tell people how old she was. You may choose to give your age and explain that, at this point in your career you are looking for job satisfaction and reward, rather than than a big title or higher pay and this is what you want to be doing. Again, this approach only works if it is true.

If you are young, stress the advantages of youth–energy, eagerness to learn, flexibility and highlight achievements in school or sports.

How long have you been in Canada? Where are you from? (country of origin)

Interviewers may simply be curious when asking this question. Here’s some tips:

  • Relate your answer to the current US/Canadian labour market, trends and knowledge and the employer’s immediate needs
  • If you are a Canadian or US citizen, or have been in the country for a while, tell the interviewer.
  • If your credentials are from another country get them accessed and look at upgrading if necessary
  • Mention your knowledge of current occupational and market knowledge, including related by-laws, codes, acts and government regulations as well as specific product and service knowledge that pertains to your occupation.

Know your rights

If you feel you are being discriminated against in a job interview or at work, you can file a complaint. In Canada, you can file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Their role includes dealing with discrimination complaints, promoting workplace equity and an understanding of human rights. They administer the law that protects people from discrimination.

The US has the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination. Like the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the EEOC investigates discrimination complaints based on an individual’s race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, gender identity, genetic information and retaliation for reporting, participating in, and/or opposing a discriminatory practice.

(Originaly posted on Noomii Career Blog)

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