Interview question do’s and don’ts

When you’re managing or recruiting people you need to know what you’re doing, and if you’ve never done it before it can be challenging. Our People Advice Service can help you with HR, Employment Law and Health and Safety advice. Here the team share their advice about what not to say at interviews.

During an interview, a varied selection of questions is vital to help identify the right employees for your business. However, asking the wrong things can bring discrimination claims against you and damage your company’s reputation.

In advance of your next interview, stop and check that you’re not planning on asking any of the following hazardous questions.

“Are you planning on starting a family?”

You wouldn’t want to be  accused of failing to employ someone because of the cost and resource issues associated with their maternity or paternity leave.

Just avoid any questions about children, childcare or family commitments. If it does come up in conversation that an applicant is expecting a baby, for instance, stress that this will not be taken into account in the selection process.

“Aren’t you a bit young/old for this job?”

Really? Who would think it a good idea to ask this, after all it reeks of discrimination. And even if it seems like an innocent question to you, and their age has nothing to do with your final decision, this type of question could come back to bite you. In a nutshell: make no reference to an applicant’s age whatsoever.

“Are you a UK citizen?”

What’s important to you as an employer is not someone’s nationality but whether a person is OK to work in the UK, so simply ask “Are you authorised to work in the UK?” But remember ask all your candidates the same question, just asking one candidate could be seen as discriminatory.

“Do you practice a particular religion?”

Ask yourself why you would want to ask this question? If it’s just a case of determining what days someone can work, then simply ask, “Can you work on weekends?” if it’s relevant to the role.

“Are you planning on retiring in the next few years?”

This could be seen as age discrimination, just worded differently. Remember: any questions to do with an applicant’s age are out of bounds.

“Is that your maiden name?”

If you want to check if the candidate has any qualifications in their maiden or married name, you may think this an innocent question, but the danger is still there. You can still get the information you want, just by asking a slightly different way, for instance, “Have you ever been known by another name?”.

“Do you smoke or drink?”

If you are worried that a candidate may need to take too many smoking breaks you can’t ask “Do you smoke?” but you could ask  “Have you had any disciplinary action regarding the use of alcohol or tobacco?”.

“Do you take any drugs?”

This question is off limits in regards to legal drugs, but not illegal ones. You can’t ask about medicines or prescription drugs, but if you want to know about the other sort of drugs, you’re allowed to ask, “Do you use illegal drugs?” . This could come in useful if you’re concerned about the inappropriate use of drugs in the workplace. The consequence of this may include increased accidents, poor work performance, lateness, increased sickness absence and reduced productivity.

“Are you disabled in any way?”

Even if it’s quite clear that someone is disabled, you can’t ask them about their specific abilities. What you can ask about, though, is what they can or can’t do. For instance, ask them if they are able to perform the duties of the role to determine this. Remember that to make sure you employ the best person for the role, you could easily make changes to your workplace, installing ramps, for instance, to accommodate their needs.

“Do you live nearby?”

Believe it or not, even asking if someone has far to commute isn’t allowed. This is in case you discriminate against them based on their geographical location. However, you can ask “Will a 9am start be suitable for you?”.

In a nutshell, don’t ask anything that could be construed as discrimination. These areas relate to someone’s:

  • religious belief
  • marital status
  • family status
  • age
  • gender
  • sexual orientation
  • race
  • physical or mental attributes, or
  • some other personal characteristic.

You could consider drafting an interview form that a pre-approved list of questions that should be used in all interview situations.  You can add more specific questions relating to the role in question as you see fit.

So, that’s some of the questions to avoid. What would you add?

Jenny Graham, Sage People Advice Service