Do People Still Ask Those Questions? The dangers of inappropriate questioning of job candidates

Although consciously inappropriate questioning of job candidates has decreased over the generations, hiring companies can still appear as if they jumped out of an episode of The Office. This isn't about political correctness, it's about trying to attract and retain talented workers by evidencing standards that are compatible with it being 2019. Asking inappropriate questions, deliberately or otherwise, won't help attract the workers you need and may result in legal exposure and a poor reputation.

SOME PERSONAL HISTORICAL MUSING

After completing high school, I went for numerous roles to see what took my fancy. The application form for one particular role asked the question of my religion! Thinking it a strange question, I queried why and pressed until a satisfactory answer or a concession was given. After contemplation they could only respond with the possibility that if 'last rights or something' were required, but ultimately had to concede they did not know. Apparently, the question had been on the application form for years and not been updated. Given the role, I suggested it just wasn't appropriate and they were legally exposing themselves. Even at that age I knew a career in workplace relations law would ultimately ensue!

In context, that hangover question from another era was understandable, but had to be challenged and changed. Strange as it may seem only a few generations ago societal and cultural norms in workplaces were very different. Women in my mother's generation were, once pregnant, asked when they were leaving (and this meant permanently!!) so as to take a clever systems analyst out of the economy. Thankfully times move on, society develops, and legislation is eventually enacted to reflect modern values.

However, even though times have moved on, not everyone does. I worked with an organisation's leader, for a very short time, who when interviewing candidates barely disguised what a truly horrid person they are. Their style of interviewing was an uncomfortable and inappropriate experience for everyone involved, and provided an insight into what it would be like working in that organisation. What can you do about people like that other than move on or litigate, and feel happy for unsuccessful candidates?

FOOT IN MOUTH

Historical musing and the odd horrid person aside it must be said that most organisations don't deliberately ask inappropriate questions of candidates, rather it is usually unintentional or through failure to think it through. However, as employers you need to be aware and not ask questions that do not relate to the candidate's ability to undertake the role. Even if the question does not form any basis for not hiring a particular candidate, it could be held against you when they claim a breach of the various disability, human rights, equal opportunity and sex discrimination legislation.

By way of just one legislative example, it is unlawful under the Fair Work Act 2009 to discriminate against a prospective worker on the basis of their race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, marital status, family or carer's responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin.

Examples of questions that cannot and should not be asked include:

  • Are you in a same-sex relationship?
  • When is the baby due?
  • How old are you?
  • Where do you come from?
  • What religion are you?
  • Are you planning to start a family?
  • Which political party do you support?
  • Do you have a disability?

Just don't ask these types of questions. They probably don't have anything to do with the advertised role.

BEST FOOT FORWARD

The best way to overcome your foot in your mouth is simple:

1.Only ask questions relating to a candidate's ability or experience to undertake the work involved in the position

2.Plan the interview. People can let their mouths run away at times, so pre-prepared questions may assist. Are the questions appropriate and do they relate to the role? If in doubt leave them out.

3.During interviews and any related discussions with candidates ask open ended questions that allow the candidate to open up and respond in detail - "How", "Why", "What" and "Tell us about yourself" type questions will usually get a candidate to open up without you getting too personal.

4.Given the nature of the possible duties, ask if the candidate can undertake the physical aspects of the role and/or if there is anything that would otherwise impede the candidate from undertaking the inherent requirements of the position. Have them confirm that in writing if necessary.

5.Depending upon the role consider whether sending a candidate for pre-employment medical/functional assessment is necessary, and appropriate, rather than asking discriminatory and potentially illegal questions.

Plan ahead, keep it simple, keep it appropriate and don't be David Brent or Michael Scott.

This article was first featured in C&I Magazine, March 2019.

Do People Still Ask Those Questions at Job Interviews?