Illegal Interview Questions and How To Respond

When confronted with inappropriate interview questions, you can stand your ground or give in. How you respond may influence how you’re treated from then on.

Illegal Interview Questions and How To Respond

By Mark Swartz


“So,” says the interviewer, casually looking you over, “how old are you?”

You tense because the question feels inappropriate. You say to yourself, are they even allowed to ask that? Qualifying for this job should be based on experience and ability, not age.

That question may well violate Canada’s Human Rights Act. Other invasive grilling may also make you feel uncomfortable. It’s your choice to reply or not. Be careful how you respond, as you may be judged accordingly.


Illegal Questions

Employers are normally allowed to ask all sorts of job interview questions, even bizarre ones. But when they start to trample your rights an issue arises. In most circumstances employers are NOT permitted to inquire about your:

  • Race, place of origin, or ethnic origin
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age
  • Marital and family status
  • Disability
  • Financial situation 

These topics are off-limits in order to prevent discrimination based on prohibited grounds. However some employers will ask about them regardless.


Inappropriate Questions

Beyond the prohibited questions, there are those that just leave you feeling violated. Sometimes they are still discriminatory though asked in a less direct way.

For instance, and interviewer might say the job involves a very hectic pace, and requires a lot of energy. Then they ask if you are sure you’re up to it.

That might be an innocent effort to forewarn you about the demands of this position. Or it could be a backdoor attempt to determine if you’re too old (or have a hidden disability).

Any question which gets too personal, or probes your outside life in ways not related to the job, might be considered inappropriate. That may not stop certain interviewers from expecting a reply.


Option A:  Choosing Not To Answer

If asked whether you’ll be taking extra time off to celebrate religious holidays, or – for women – do you expect to get pregnant soon, you have the right to not answer.

Instead you might reply that this question makes you uncomfortable, you’d prefer sticking to areas related to the work, and can we go on to the next inquiry please. Alternatively you could politely indicate that the question is prohibited by law.

In either case you are drawing a line in the sand. If that employer is displeased, it’s quite possibly they won’t hire you. You may never hear why not. Then again the interviewer might be testing your resolve. They could be looking for someone who stands up for themselves.


Option B: Telling The Truth

The opposite of refusing to answer is to reply honestly. So what if they know that you are lesbian, married and two months pregnant from a donour. Who cares that you reveal you need this job to pay off a huge credit card debt?

Some of what they ask inappropriately may get revealed anyway. Before you accept a job offer they’ll probably run a background check on you, possibly a financial and criminal check too. Plus they’ll likely Google your social media profiles. 

The difference is that they can do that after the interviews, whereas questioning takes place during. If you discover that this employer asks illegal interview questions when hiring, what might their ethics and respect for the law be like? And if you answer whatever they throw at you, how will they treat you if you take the job?


Option C: Deflecting

Between ignoring the offensive question or responding outright, lies the art of deflection. This is where you turn around the situation to benefit both sides.

Say the interviewer asks where you were born. Again this may be perfectly innocent. Maybe not, however, if you have a foreign-sounding name, a heavy accent, or look “different.”

If born or raised outside Canada, consider referring to any international experience you have that will give the employer a competitive advantage. Note that this avoids answering the potentially discriminatory question. Yet it also positions you as having an edge.

The interview is back on track and you’ve saved the interviewer from embarrassment. That’s a double win to celebrate - now make sure to keep your eyes and ears wide open.