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Questions you don’t have to answer at interview

As an interviewee, you may think you have no choice but to answer all questions asked in an interview. You might be desperate to win the position, be keen to please or don’t want to be seen as difficult.

But what if the question you’re asked is personal or not appropriate—perhaps even illegal?

Kate Prior, Managing Director and Founder of face2face Recruitment, says a job interview’s sole purpose is to discuss your education, experience, skills and cultural fit for the specific job and organisation at hand.

‘It’s designed to determine if you’re the best person for the role being advertised,’ says Kate. ‘It’s OK to test character traits but only if they relate to the job or organisation.’

‘Some questions shouldn’t be asked and employers are out of line if they do ask them,’ says Kate. ‘The trick is to work out what you should do next.’

20 questions that aren’t OK to ask

Let’s explore what types of questions aren’t OK to ask. Here are some examples.

  1. Do you have a mental or other disability?
  2. Do you drink alcohol at night? If so, how many drinks?
  3. Do you take illegal drugs?
  4. Are you gay?
  5. What do you think of same-sex marriage?
  6. How old are you?
  7. What’s your date of birth?
  8. Where were you born?
  9. Do you speak English at home?
  10. What political party do you vote for?
  11. What is your citizenship?
  12. Do you have a criminal record?
  13. What’s your religion or your family’s religion?
  14. Are you married?
  15. Do you have kids?
  16. Are you pregnant?
  17. When do you plan to have kids?
  18. Who cares for your children while you’re working?
  19. Do you have health problems?
  20. How many sick days did you take last year?

What is the law?

Federal, state and territory laws in Australia protect people from discrimination and harassment. This includes acts and legislation relating to human rights, disability, racial discrimination, sex discrimination and age discrimination.

‘The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 states clearly that one person—in this case the employer—cannot ask or demand that another person provide them with information that could be used in a discriminatory way,’ says Kate. ‘These sample questions do just that.’

The Fair Work Act 2009 says unlawful workplace discrimination occurs when an employer takes adverse action against a person who is an employee or a prospective employee because of these attributes: race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin. The Fair Work Ombudsman can take enforcement action when this occurs.

‘Sometimes an employer just isn’t aware that these questions aren’t appropriate, although they should be,’ says Kate. ‘Some interviewers have limited experience and aren’t always well trained in what is and isn’t acceptable. They may innocently ask the wrong type of question. Others deliberately ask and this is when the onus is on you to know what to do.’

Another issue to consider is whether the question relates to the position. So, for example, if the job involves manual labour, the employer may need someone who can perform tasks that a person with a certain type of disability can’t perform.

What to do next? Here are your choices

  1. Answer the question but be aware that if you provide the information it could be held against you.
  2. Politely and professionally refuse to answer the question saying it’s not relevant to your ability to perform the role. Hopefully, the interviewer will withdraw the question. If they insist you can:
    • ask the employer to explain the question’s relevance to the role
    • repeat your refusal to answer, taking the high ground and being polite
    • say that under the Fair Work act you believe the question isn’t suitable and so would prefer not to respond.

Sample words to use

‘Thanks for asking that question. I’m not sure how to answer because I’m not sure how it’s relevant to the job I’m applying for. If you could explain how, I’ll try to answer in a way that’s relevant.’

‘That’s an interesting question. Would you mind explaining how the question is connected to my skills and ability to do the job?

If the going gets tough and the employer insists on an answer, it might be don’t want to work for them anyway.

This may be your cue to get up and politely say you’re not sure the job is right for you. Thank them for inviting you to interview and then leave.

Want more information?

A quick guide to Australian discrimination laws:

Workplace discrimination:

Other career interview articles:

The panel interview: How to ace it.

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