Questions to Ask in an Interview: What Employers Can and Can’t Ask

Interviews can be a stressful time for both employees and employers. Employers need to determine whether the candidate is a good fit for the company and can succeed in the role, while applicants have to navigate the tricky recruitment process to land their dream job. With so much pressure, it’s easy for things to go wrong.

Whether we’ve experienced it first-hand or know someone that has, conscious and unconscious discrimination and stereotypes exist within the interview practice. In fact, a recent study published in HR News revealed that a shocking 85% of interviewers admit to asking illegal or off-limit questions.

Interviewers don’t always realise that such questions are actually illegal. This same study discovered that only 36% of junior-level and 56% of senior-level staff members involved in the hiring process received formal training about appropriate interview etiquette. When asked whether it was ‘okay’ to inquire into a potential employee’s plans to start a family, 40% of interviewers considered this question acceptable while 36% thought it was unethical yet not illegal.

Employment Law Interview Process

So, what exactly does employment law say about the interview process? The Equality Act 2010 protects job candidates from questions, during any point of recruitment, related to protected characteristics. According to the UK Government, protected characteristics include:

  • Age
  • Sexuality
  • Gender and gender identity
  • Marriage and civil partnerships
  • Family planning (i.e. whether you or your partner intend to get or are pregnant)
  • Disability
  • Race including nationality, colour or ethnicity
  • Religion or lack of religion

It’s also illegal to ask about whether someone already has children or is a member of a trade union.

Some protected characteristics, like disability, aren’t entirely off-limits. Employers can, within certain cases, ask about certain aspects of the job where “reasonable adjustments” can’t be made possible; for example, whether someone applying for a construction role can lift heavy objects. Employers can also inquire about any reasonable adjustments required for the interview process or if the company is using ‘positive action’, employers can ask about the individual’s disabilities.

Other cases where off-limit questions are permitted include asking someone’s age when the job requires them to be over a certain age, like selling alcohol, or asking about spent criminal convictions in industries, like education, which cannot hire those with a criminal record.

What You Can’t Ask: Illegal Job Questions

Avoiding illegal or discriminatory questions during the interview process is crucial. Asking off-limit questions not only deters talented potential employees but could also result in legal trouble for you or your company should the candidate decide to press charges. You CAN’T ask discriminatory interview questions like:

  • Where were you born?
  • What is your native language?
  • Do you have any religious beliefs?
  • Aren’t you a little too old/young for this role?
  • Are you married?
  • Do you plan to have children?
  • How will you handle childcare when at work?
  • Are you a member of a trade union?

If you believe the answers to these questions could impact the individual’s ability to succeed in the role, you can rephrase the question — often a turn of phrase can make an illegal interview question acceptable. For example, rather than asking ‘are you married?’ you can ask ‘do you have any commitments which could impact your ability to fulfil the job requirements?’. Phrasing questions correctly helps protect your company’s reputation and ensures you don’t violate any employment laws.

What You Can Ask: Best Interview Questions

Interviews offer the ideal opportunity to learn more about your shortlisted candidates and determine whether they’re a good fit for the role and company. Seasoned HR professionals often develop a list of questions that they routinely use to quickly assess the person’s skills and compatibility.

Cultivating a list of the best interview questions takes time. If you have a detailed record of past interviews, you could examine questions asked, during the interviews, of your most successful employees and their responses. In general, the best interview questions are questions that help you determine if the individual has the desired skill set and if they can make the sought-after contributions. Such questions might also focus on potential employees’ soft-skills and how they might fit within the existing team and company culture.

In our opinion, these are some of the best interview questions:

  • What has been your most significant career achievement to date?
  • What would you consider your ideal work environment and management structure?
  • Give me an example of a time when you overcame a major obstacle to complete a project/task.
  • How would your current coworkers describe your contributions to the team?
  • What are your three greatest strengths and weaknesses?

However, it’s also essential to tailor the interview process to the role and ask skill-based questions. For example, if you’re hiring a marketing executive, you might want to know their experience with Google Analytics or PPC while if you’re hiring a builder, you might want to know about their past projects and how they’ve overcome job-related issues like planning permission or British weather.

Interview Etiquette

HR News’ recent study highlights a serious lack of knowledge regarding what constitutes appropriate interview questions. All staff members involved in interviewing job candidates should understand and recognise any bias and avoid illegal or discriminatory questions. Overcoming discrimination, particularly during the hiring process, is essential for cultivating an inclusive work environment and ultimately even company success.

We suggest meeting with your recruiter to go over the general interview process as well as any questions you plan to ask. They’ll be able to advise you on whether your questions are appropriate and help you refine your approach for the best results. Discussing your interview approach with your recruiter can make sure you get the most out of the interview and find the perfect employee.

Recruitment Help

Need help with the recruitment process? We’re here to lend a hand.

Change Recruitment is a leading Edinburgh and Glasgow recruitment agency with a team of dedicated HR professionals. With over 45 years experience in the recruitment industry, our specialists are trained to guide you through the interview and hiring process. Visit us online to learn about how we can help you find the best and brightest for accountancy and finance, investment & risk, construction building services or professional services roles.

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