Illegal interview questions. They exist.
Of all the things you can not get hired for (like being rude in the interview, not having enough experience, or arriving late), your age isn’t one of them. Ditto for who you like to make out with, your ethnic background, and your religion.
We aren’t just being politically correct, it’s the law.
Think about it like this: does who you banged Friday night actually affect how you’ll do the job you’re gunning for? No. It’s none of your potential employer’s business.
To protect you from the ignorant people who actually would use that to illegally discriminate against you in a job interview, the federal government has made it illegal for a prospective employer to ask you about your:
Age, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, ethnic origin, religion, race, colour, marital status, family status, disability, genetic characteristics, and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered.
Ignorant People: 0
How to spot an illegal question
As a general rule, Ali Popp, an HR guru, says, “if something smells fishy, that’s because it is. Anything personal, about age, your sexual orientation–it can even be a comment–that makes you feel uncomfortable, or feel like you don’t know how to answer it.”
Ali’s interviewed hundreds of people over the course of her career, which includes an HR role at Bain & Company (a massive consulting firm) and Influitive (a fast-growing tech startup). I met her through my co-op program at the University of Waterloo, after I was hired onto her team, so I can vouch from personal experience she knows what she’s doing.
Employers ask illegal questions in a bunch of different ways. For example, you could be asked outright what your background is, or it could come up in small-talk. It could be something like, “oh, you have an interesting accent, where are you from?”
“People feel like they have to overlook the question.”
The interviewer doesn’t have to have negative intentions while asking the question for it to be illegal, by the way. So even inexperienced interviewers, who simply don’t know any better and are trying to make conversation, are on the hook. Ignorance shouldn’t be an excuse.
Examples of what’s okay, and what’s not
Sometimes, an interviewer will need to know whether you meet a certain minimum age, because a job legitimately needs it. Like, if you’re applying for a restaurant job, you’ll need to be at least 18 years old because of certain laws that surround alcohol service. The right way to be asked a question surrounding something like your age (for legit job-related reasons only) is to first be given context, and then to only be asked what’s crucial to know.
Can ask: “the legal age you can start serving alcohol is 18, so you need to be at least that old to work here. Do you meet that requirement?”
Can ask: “this job requires you to be renting a car to drive from location to location, and rental companies only rent cars to people 25 years of age or older. Do you meet that age minimum?”
Can’t ask: “how old are you?”
Can ask: “this job requires you to work weekends, including Friday and Saturday nights. Are you available to take on those shifts?”
Can’t ask: “so, you’re Jewish right? I guess that means you can’t work Friday night shifts because that’s your holy day?”
Can ask: “this job requires you to occasionally lift and carry boxes that are around 40lbs. Will you be able to do that?”
Can’t ask: “are you disabled in any way?”
In really rare cases, your gender might matter for the job you’ve applied for. The best example we (and the internet) can think up is if you’re applying to work at a women’s shelter, and they only hire women to make their guests feel more comfortable.
We couldn’t come up with example scenarios where someone’s race or sexual orientation might legitimately affect someone’s ability to do their job. In other words, that should never come up in your interview.
How to handle an illegal question without making it awkward
“The shitty thing is, students get caught in a bad situation when this happens. They need the money, they need the job. And as much as I want to tell you to just say ‘I’m not comfortable answering that question,’ it’s complicated. People feel like they have to overlook the question,” Ali says.
P.S. You’re well within your right to refuse to answer an illegal interview question; and to excuse yourself from the interview. And to file a complaint with your provincial human rights commission.
Ask for context about why you were asked the question, with an easy, cheeky, curious tone. Say something like “can you give me some context about how this is important to the job? I don’t quite get how it ties back to the job.”
That’ll give your interviewer a chance to take back their bad question, or explain why it’s actually relevant to have answered. It’s an assertive way of getting your point across without seeming defensive and turning the vibes in the room sour.
Having rehearsed your retort will keep you from getting flustered in the moment and killing your mojo.
Getting your retort out without missing a beat isn’t easy, especially if you didn’t expect the question. So, practice what you’ll say if you’re asked something illegal in front of the mirror, or a friend. Having rehearsed your retort will keep you from getting flustered in the moment and killing your mojo.
At the end of the day, Ali says, “You’ll feel in the pit of your stomach that something isn’t right.” Now you know what to do about it.
*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.