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Q&A with an HR Professor: Illegal Interview Questions and How to Answer Them

Think back to past interviews you’ve done; what type of questions did employers ask? Beyond the classic “tell me about yourself” or “what is your greatest strength,” were you asked about topics such as age, culture, or even for a photo of yourself before the interview? If so, you may have been asked an illegal interview question! 

The reason that these questions can be considered illegal is because factors such as age and religion (among several others) are all considered prohibited grounds of discrimination as outlined in the Canadian Human Rights Act and may lead to an employer intentionally or unintentionally discriminating against you. A full list of prohibited grounds of discrimination are available here

Unless they are specific requirements for performing a job’s essential duties (known as Bona Fide Occupational Requirements) which be important to the hiring process – like the minimum age for serving alcohol or vision proficiency for a bus driver – employers must avoid asking questions based on these factors. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they never will.

Sometimes, your potential employer may not intend to ask discriminatory questions, but they might end up that way. Something as simple as an employer taking note of your accent and asking where you’re from or noticing your school lanyard and asking when you graduated high school can all lead to discrimination according to the Canadian Human Rights Act (on the basis of ethnic origin and age respectively). 

So, what should you do if you are asked an illegal interview question? It can be an uncomfortable experience for candidates who fear not answering the question or indicating the inappropriateness of it to the interviewer may make them appear defensive or uncooperative. I’ve spoken with François Durand – human resources professor at uOttawa – on the best ways to go about answering these questions in case they come up at your next interview!

 

Question: Were you born in Canada? 

Answer: I think that where I was born is not critical for this position. I have the credentials and the experience that make me an ideal candidate. For example … 

 

Question: Are you planning on starting a family soon? 

Answer: My professional plans are in line with the position I am applying for. I am willing and able to fulfil the requirements of the job. For example … 

 

Question: How old are you? 

Answer: I’m old enough to have graduated from School XYZ and have accumulated relevant experience for the position. For example … 

 

Question: What is your cultural background? 

Answer: Cultural background is not a critical skill for this job. I am, however, hardworking, and very motivated to perform well in this job. For example … 

 

Question: Do you have any disabilities? 

Answer: What is important is that I have the qualifications and the skills to perform well at this job. For example…

 

When answering questions like those above, interviewees should take the opportunity to highlight key skills that reinforce the idea that they are indeed the right person for the job, steering the interview back on track in the process. 

Interviews can feel daunting at times, but they should never be too uncomfortable! Familiarizing yourself with prohibited grounds of discrimination and knowing how to answer these types of questions early on in your professional life can help you feel confident and prepared for many more interviews to come. Best of luck! 

3rd Year Human Resource Management student at the University of Ottawa
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