10 illegal questions NOT to ask at interview


If you’re in the process of recruiting new staff members for your business, you’ll know that the interview process can be more than just a little bit daunting. You need to find the best people for the job as quickly as possible, but you’re also aware that you need to stay on the right side of the law and ensure that your processes aren’t in any way discriminatory.

The truth is that most business owners have the best intentions when it comes to recruitment, and want to give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. Interpreting legislation can be tricky though, so before you get started with searching and selecting, it pays to do your homework in advance, just to give you that extra peace of mind.

If you’re wondering what you should and shouldn’t ask your candidates, you’re in the right place. In this guide, we discuss ten interview questions that you absolutely must avoid to make sure that you don’t break the law or bring your business into disrepute.

Though some of them will be obvious to many experienced managers, some of them are a little more complex. You’ll find the reasons why the questions might be considered illegal, as well as guidance for the questions that you should ask instead.

By following the suggestions, you can rest safe in the knowledge that you’re running your selection exercises in accordance with employment and equality legislation.

1.‘How old are you?’

It’s usually against the law to ask candidates how old they are when they’re applying for a job, whether it’s in the application form or during a face-to-face interview. The reason for this is quite simple – it prevents discrimination. Stopping employers from gathering personal information about age means that they’ll have to weigh up a candidate’s suitability based purely on their ability to do the job in question, giving everyone an equal opportunity.

Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule. The Equality Act (2010) permits direct discrimination on the basis of age, when there is a Genuine Occupational Requirement. A good example of when this is likely to be applicable is when a certain role involves serving alcohol. The law states that individuals must be over the age of 18 to serve alcoholic drinks to customers, so in this case, it would be acceptable to ask that applicants are over 18.

2.‘What are your religious views?’

It’s generally unacceptable, and indeed unlawful, to ask candidates about their religious beliefs during the interview process. In the majority of cases, the answer will have no impact whatsoever on their ability to carry out a particular job.

Again though, there are certain cases in which a Genuine Occupational Requirement might exist. If a religious organisation is recruiting a minister, for example, it’s easy to see why candidates must belong to a certain religious group. Similarly, it’s easy to see why the role of Halal butcher would require a person of Muslim faith. However, just because an organisation has a particular religious stance, it doesn’t mean that all employees must share the same views. It would be difficult, for example, to justify the case that a receptionist should hold the same views, as it would not be an integral part of the role.

3.‘Are you single?’

Questions about marital status have no place in a job interview. As some employers may consider single applicants to be their best choice as they’ll have fewer commitments outside the workplace, and others may think that married candidates are the better option as they might be more settled, there could be grounds for a discrimination case if decisions are based on this issue.

It’s also the sort of question that can just seem inappropriate in a job interview. Even if your intentions are honest, it could be considered as bordering on suggestive in certain settings.

Obviously, questions about sexual orientation must also be avoided.

4.‘What are your childcare arrangements?’

It’s against the law to ask your candidates about their childcare arrangements, regardless of whether or not you know that they have a young family. It’s potentially discriminatory, and will certainly give off the wrong messages about your business.

It makes sense that you want to know whether your candidates are able to work the hours that you need, but it’s all about doing it in the right way. Asking whether there are any issues that would interfere with their regular attendance in the workplace is a great (and completely legal) way to find out if your potential employee is in a position to take on the role. Recognise that employers will lead differing lifestyles outside of the workplace, but that doesn’t necessarily tell you anything at all at just how suitable they’ll be to work within your business.

If you want to take a step closer to being a truly exemplary employer, you might want to consider how viable it would be to offer childcare to your staff on-site. Yes, it could involve a significant cost, but it could also mean that you attract a wider pool of talent, and really strengthen your reputation and employer brand.

5.‘Where were you born?’

It’s acceptable, and highly advisable, to ask whether the candidate is eligible to work in the UK. You could be fined up to £20,000 if you employ illegal workers, including students whose visas have expired, and people who are working on a visitor’s visa. However, a candidate’s place of birth or ethnic background should not be discussed in an interview setting.

The answer could provide grounds for discrimination, and won’t have any impact on their ability to carry out a job.

6.‘Do you smoke or drink alcohol?’

As an employer, you need to set behavioural standards in the workplace, including the prohibition of substances. Many businesses have policies that deal with these exact issues, and it’s something that you might want to consider yourself as your business grows and your workforce expands. It tends to be one of those things that no one really considers until they’re faced with a tricky problem with their employees, and a little forward thinking can go a long way.

Still , you shouldn’t ask questions in an interview about whether a candidate smokes or how much alcohol they consume in their spare time. Again, personal lifestyle choices have no influence on whether someone is capable of carrying out a particular job.

Similarly, questions about group memberships or political preferences should be avoided, unless they’re directly related to the role that you’re hiring for. So whilst it would be fine to ask a candidate whether they’re a member of a professional group or body that’s relevant to the line of work, it would not be acceptable to ask about whether they’re a member of a political party.

7.‘How tall are you?’

Asking a person’s height may seem unnecessary, and even slightly bizarre, though there could be some issues around this if you’re recruiting for a particular job that requires manual labour, such as lifting and moving boxes in a warehouse. Stating explicitly that a person must be taller than 6 foot, for example, will mean that you’re indirectly discriminating against women, who will typically be shorter than men. It would however be acceptable to ask a candidate whether they could lift heavy boxes, if that is a key part of the job role.

Consider the implications of the questions that you’re asking, and ask yourself whether there’s a genuine need for the question to be asked, and whether it has a bearing on an individual’s ability to carry out the job.

Be realistic about the solutions you put in place to make sure you’re giving candidates an equal chance. Installing ladders in a warehouse, for example, wouldn’t be costly or take a great deal of time, and could mean that your initial height requirement is no longer necessary.

8.‘How do you feel about managing men?’

If you’re recruiting a manager who will be responsible for a team of men within the workplace, you may think that it would be acceptable to ask a female candidate whether she would feel comfortable about this, and visa versa. But whilst you should ask about an individual’s ability to deal with the challenges of a particular role, you should not imply that gender might have an impact on this.

Instead, ask questions that unearth details of their previous management experience, and how they’ve dealt with any particular issues along the way. You could ask, for example, what they consider to be the biggest challenges that they’ve faced when managing teams, and what they learned from the experience. It’s this type of questioning that will determine whether they’re capable of effective people management.

9.‘Can you tell me a little more about your disability?’

As a general rule, stick to asking your candidates about their abilities, not their disabilities. Though it’s wise to ask questions about any skills, training, and education that interviewees might have that would help them to succeed in a particular position, it would be illegal to ask them to talk about a condition or disability that would affect their capacity to carry out work to a high standard.

On a similar note, you shouldn’t ask candidates whether they’ve ever suffered from mental health problems, if they’re taking any medication, why they use a wheelchair, or if they’re likely to need to take time off work for medical or disability-related reasons.

It is however worth noting here that there are instances during the recruitment process when it might be acceptable to ask about disability. If the job absolutely couldn’t be carried out by someone with mobility issues, for example, even with reasonable adjustments, then there would be a genuine need to establish whether any such barriers existed.

You might also decide to use ‘positive action’ to specifically recruit a disabled person. This can get quite tricky though, so it’s highly advisable that you seek out specialist HR advice before trying to run and design such a project on your own.

10.‘What’s your Facebook password?’

Amazingly, it’s been reported in the media several times in recent years that employers have asked candidates to hand over their social media login details as part of the selection process. Though the legal advice surrounding this is unclear at best, it’s a practice that you should certainly avoid.

A blatant breach of privacy, it’s a tactic that’s likely to lose you many high quality candidates along the way, as well as create a bad reputation for your business. It’s also a clear violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, and though Mark Zuckerberg and company are yet to take any formal action on the matter, they take privacy very seriously and definitely frown upon the practice.

It can be very tempting to search for your candidates on social media and do a little digging to see what you can find, but it isn’t the most ethical of approaches. Research from CIPD suggests that it’s a tactic used by around 2 out of 5 employers – and of course, that’s just the ones who will admit to it! Ask yourself whether you’ll really unearth any information that tells you anything about a candidate’s ability to do the job.

 And a final note…

 We hope that you’ve found this guide useful, and that it’s given you a better understanding of your responsibilities when recruiting staff for your business.

Though designing an interview process can be daunting, it’s worth remembering that ultimately, the legislation exists to protect your potential employees and give them equal opportunities in the workplace. When adhered to, this creates diverse workforces that are an asset to their businesses.

 If you feel that there is a Genuine Occupational Requirement within your business for a role that you’re recruiting for, it pays to get proper advice from a professional. Give us a call today for a no-obligation chat about how we could help you to get the best possible outcome from your recruitment exercises, whilst also effectively managing your legal obligations.