What not to ask during an interview

Most employers are aware that there are certain interview questions that are strictly off limits but, speaking with a client last week about delivering some recruitment and selection training to their management team, I was reminded that some interviewers still blunder innocently into no-go areas without intending to.  

Our client told me about one of their team – a chatty, kindly chap – who, despite being told on numerous occasions not to stray into areas unrelated to work, persists in asking candidates if they have children – eeeek! This isn’t because he has any intention of discriminating against anyone who does have a family but because he’s genuinely interested in them as a person.  However, as we know, the law doesn’t care if the question was asked innocently or with discriminatory intent.

So, as I’m planning the training outline for our client, I’m obviously thinking about content surrounding questions that should be avoided during interview and thought I’d share them with you as a reminder.

The main focus of your interview questions should always be the requirements of the role itself, usually defined within the job description/person specification, to establish whether the candidate has the behaviours, skills and experience needed to carry out the job.  Any questions which start to stray into personal information will usually be off limits, unless it is specifically relevant to the position itself – for example, if the candidate will be selling alcohol as part of the job, it will be acceptable to ask whether they’re aged over 18.

Questions which are strictly off limits

Questions which relate to any of the following are red flags and should be avoided:

  • Age:

DON’T ask: How old are you? Can you tell me your date of birth for our records?  When did you leave school/college/university?  When are you planning on retiring? Do you feel that you might be a little too young/old for this role?

Instead you CAN ask: Are you over 18?

  • Marriage/civil partnership status, pregnancy/maternity leave, having children or planning to have children, gender or sexual orientation:

DON’T ask: Are you married? Do you have any children? Are you planning to have a family? Will childcare be a problem for you? Will the working hours fit around your family? How old are your children? What are your sexual preferences?

Instead you CAN ask: Do you have any commitments which may affect your ability to carry out this role, or which may affect your attendance at work?

  • Disability:

DON’Task: Do you have any disabilities? How do you think your disability will impact on your performance in the job?  How many sick days have you taken in the last 12 months? How did you become disabled? Do you require time off work to attend appointments?

Instead you CAN ask: Do you have any specific requirements to be able to perform in the role?

  • Race, including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin:

DON’T ask: Are you from the UK? Where were you born? How long have you lived here? Is English your first language?

Instead you CAN ask: Which languages are you fluent in?

  • Religion or belief:

DON’T ask: What religion are you?  What are the requirements of your religion?  How will your religion impact on your ability to do the job?

Instead you CAN ask: Are there any reasons why you might not be suitable for this position? Are you available to work at the weekend/on shift work?

  • Other questions to be avoided: Do you have any previous criminal convictions? Do you smoke/drink/take drugs? Are you a trade union member?

The easiest way to avoid potentially discriminating against a candidate is to stick purely to the requirements of the job – that way, you know you’re staying within safe territory and will also have a higher chance of success in finding the best person for the job itself which, at the end of the day, is surely all that matters. 

If you would like to consider providing your team with recruitment and selection training, please do get in touch – we’d love to help.


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