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How to Recognize and Respond to Illegal Interview Questions

by Jessica McQuistin

Preparing for a job interview includes preparing answers to typical interview questions. But what if you are asked an illegal question in an interview? Would you recognize it as illegal, and if so, how would you respond?

Job interviews provide employers an opportunity to fairly evaluate how well each candidate meets the qualifications or requirements of a particular position. Illegal interview questions are those that do not relate directly to the job requirements and can lead to discrimination.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, illegal questions include questions about your age, race, ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, criminal records or disabilities. There are some exceptions if the questions relate directly to the core duties of the job. For example, denominational schools can ask about a candidate’s religion since the job directly involves participating in religious activities and demonstrating religious values. Similarly, for jobs that involve driving and require a clean driving record, employers can ask candidates if they have any Highway Traffic Act convictions.

Most interviewers do not ask inappropriate questions on purpose. It can be hard to tell if an employer is simply not aware that the question is illegal, or if he/she is purposely asking for information that does not belong in a job interview. For example, “Do you have any kids?” is commonly asked in daily conversations but is illegal in an interview.

If you are asked an illegal question, you can answer the question if you are comfortable doing so and do not believe your answer will negatively affect your chances of getting the job, you can politely decline to answer, or you can examine how the question relates to the job and then respond appropriately. For example, if an employer asks “Do you have any physical disabilities?” you could respond by stating “I am confident that I can handle the physical requirements of this position”. If you are unsure how the question relates to the position, you can ask the employer to clarify, “Can you tell me about the physical demands of the job?” and then answer accordingly. Regardless of which way you choose to respond, stay calm and maintain a positive, respectful tone.

Just remember that you have every right to seek clarification or refuse to answer a question if you believe your answer could lead to discrimination. Recognizing illegal questions and knowing how to respond can give you the confidence to tackle any question that comes your way in an interview.