Job seekers: How to deal with illegal interview questions

By Robert Half on 19 May 2015

It’s the morning of your dream job interview and you want to make the best impression possible.

You've rehearsed the 10 most asked interview questions and have your resume in tip-top shape. You are feeling prepped and ready to nail the interview. However, an hour later, you find yourself in the interview chair and, to your surprise, are being bombarded with personal questions which have little do to with the role you are applying for.

Understanding what potential employers are allowed to ask in an interview (and more importantly what they are not), is vital to being able to recognise when you are potentially being discriminated against if you don’t get the job.

So, here’s all you need to know…

What interview questions are illegal?

In Australia, interviewers cannot ask questions that fall into the realm of ‘illegal’. These include any queries relating to:

  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability/impairment
  • Marital status
  • Political and religious belief or activity
  • Race
  • Illness
  • Status as a parent or carer
  • Age
  • Physical features
  • Pregnancy and potential pregnancy
  • Industrial activity

Such questions might be raised in the form of ‘How old are you?’, ‘Are you married?’, or ‘Who cares for the children while you are working?’. You do not have to answer these questions. In fact, if you come across any of these during your interview, warning bells should ring in your head as to the type of employer you might be about to tie yourself to.

Why are such interview questions illegal?

Under Australian employment legislation, these types of questions are illegal and unethical as they are not relevant to whether a person can or cannot perform the role.

“Such protections make it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of certain characteristics. Organisations are required to comply with all relevant statutory obligations, including Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination legislation, not to mention the Fair Work Act 2009,” explains Human Resources specialist and author of ‘From Hire to Fire and Everything In-between’, Natasha Hawker.

Indeed, HR professionals who undertake interviews and are members of the Australian Human Resources Institute also have an additional professional code of conduct and professional ethics guide which they must adhere to, so as to ensure they do not undertake discriminatory practices. Essentially, a potential employer should stick to questions relating to your skills, experience and qualifications.

What should I do if I'm asked an illegal interview question?

Calling a potential employer out on their inappropriate interview questions is something that no candidate wants to do. It's awkward and they could potentially take offence. However, there are ways of addressing the issue without damaging your chances of being hired.

“If asked to answer a question that isn’t directly relevant to the performance of the role in discussion, you can refuse to answer it,” advises senior industrial relations consultant, Cameron Blewett, of IR Simplified. “Politely point out that the response isn’t important as it doesn’t relate to your ability to do the job.”

You should expect the interviewer to change tact after such a response, however if they continue their inappropriate line of questioning or decide on the spot that you are not right for the position (based on your response to an illegal interview question), you can take further action. “You could get in touch with an IR professional or a lawyer to discuss any possible avenues that can be taken,” suggests Cameron. “It is up to you as a candidate to take the matter further.”

For further information on illegal interview questions, contact a Robert Half recruiter or research the following Commonwealth legislation:

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