A category of questions which often catch job seekers unprepared and are difficult to address are illegal questions. These are questions which are unrelated to the job and that ask for personal information which could result in prejudice and discrimination against the interviewee.
To protect job searchers, the Canadian Human Rights Act has specific guidelines governing the information and privacy of job searchers. The guidelines focus on ensuring that, other than in *exceptional circumstances, candidates do not get asked such questions, which might result in discrimination. These include questions that ask about issues such as:
- Country/place of origin
- Citizenship status
- Family structure, marital status, children
- Sexual orientation
- Race/ethnicity/ancestry /ethnic origin
- Health and disability (physical and mental)
- Pardoned offences
- Appearance, height and weight
(*The exceptional circumstances only apply if the employer needs information regarding “Bona Fide Occupational Requirements” — that is, when a particular requirement is reasonably needed to do a specific job — for example, when a job requires physical strength to lift over 50 lb)
Despite these guidelines, sometimes job searchers do encounter such questions, directly (e.g. “Do you have kids?”) or indirectly (“Do you have childcare?”) in interviews. The challenge for interviewees is to figure out how to deal with these potentially prejudicial questions — without alienating an interviewer. Simply refusing to answer may not necessarily be productive.
An effective approach may be to:
– directly address the issue (“I’d prefer not to answer this question, unless there’s a specific reason why you need to know to about my family situation”)
– redirect the question with a question (e.g. “Can you please explain how my family situation is relevant to this job?”)
– assure the employer that the concern would not affect work performance (“My family situation has never affected my ability to do the job”)
Depending on the personal style of the interviewee, any these responses might work to defuse the issue and enable the interview to focus on more relevant issues.
Another approach for some interviewees might be to simply disclose some personal information and face directly any discrimination that may result directly (“Yes, I do have young children, and am hoping your company can accommodate my infrequent needs for flexibility, as my last employer did. My references will assure you that I am well organised and that it never affected my ability to get my work done“).
Knowing rights and fighting for them does not mean the you need to be aggressive or say anything that makes you or the employer uncomfortable. In an interview, this discussion can be very productive, if it is held in an assertive, confident and respectful manner. Ultimately, decisions about how and whether these issues are addressed are up to job searchers themselves. If you know your rights and needs, you can make an informed and thoughtful decision as to how to advocate for yourself with potential employers.
Keep in mind that though employers are supposed to know the law, many do not. This means that you, the job seeker, need to ensure that you know know and are prepared to politely and confidently assert your rights. If needed, job seekers in Toronto can turn to a number of resources and organisations which understand these issues and set out to inform and defend workers, such as The Workers Action Centre, No-one Is Illegal, and others. Also, legal resource centres can provide information on a range of issues and services in a range of languages.
Think through your own strategy in tackling this issue, so that if it arises in an interview, you are prepared. Make sure that you find an approach that suits your personal style, and that you understand the consequences of your chosen approach.
If you have faced these types of questions in an interview, we would love to hear how you handled it. Please add your comments below.