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Questions to avoid when conducting a job interview

Author: Robert Lamb
3 min read
30 January 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Avoid direct or indirect questions that may discriminate against the candidate.
  • Personal questions must be asked with caution
  • Usually only questions regarding a candidate’s suitability or ability should be asked.

Conducting Job interviews is vital to ensure the best person for the job is hired. But the person conducting the job interview needs to know and be aware of what questions can and can’t be asked.

In today’s competitive environment, the quality of a company’s team is paramount to its success. However, amid the skills shortage, enthusiasm to find the right person may result in them not thinking about what should and shouldn’t be asked to a candidate in a job interview.

Knowing how to ask the right questions to obtain the appropriate information can be challenging, and it’s important to understand what’s considered invasive, unprofessional and, in some instances, unlawful. The right not to be discriminated against doesn’t just apply to existing employees. It also extends to prospective employees and ensures they aren’t denied job opportunities for discriminatory reasons.

Avoiding asking questions that may directly or indirectly discriminate against the person.

Direct discrimination occurs when a prospective employee is treated differently because of a particular personal characteristic.

There is also indirect discrimination that occurs when an apparently neutral question results in a person, with a particular attribute or from an identifiable group, being unfairly disadvantaged.

Under Australian law it is unlawful to ask questions that may cause discrimination, such as whether someone identifies with a particular religion or if they plan on having children. Section 351 of the Fair Work Act prohibits employers from discriminating against both employees and prospective employees based on the following factors: race, skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, national extraction or social origin.

Some states and territories also have anti-discrimination legislation in place which protects candidates against discrimination based on union activity, political opinion and criminal records. HR must be aware of these federal and state laws when preparing interview questions.

Asking questions on these topics, whether intentional or not, could leave a business vulnerable to legal action. In cases like this, the employee may be entitled to compensation.

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) and courts have the power to issue fines per contravention of up to $66,000 for a corporation and $13,320 for an individual. Essentially, it’s best for HR to avoid questions that relate to the personal life of a prospective employee that are irrelevant to their ability to perform the job. You need to treat all prospective employees the same.

It’s also important to put the same questions to every candidate being interviewed for a particular position.

Exceptions to the rule

There are instances where questions regarding a candidate’s personal information are relevant to assessing a candidate’s ability to perform the tasks associated with the position and are therefore reasonable. But it must be relevant and asked with caution.

The exemptions generally relate to:

  • Asking about a candidate’s residency status to assess their capacity to work full-time hours.
  • Public health-related matters.
  • Setting reasonable standards of employment to accommodate any physical or mental impairments.
  • Caring for or being in the presence of children.

How should candidates respond to inappropriate questions?

Candidates have every right to take legal action against a prospective employer if they have been discriminated against during an interview process.

Ultimately, what an employer asks a candidate in an interview should relate to the job and how suitable they are for it.

Despite current legislative boundaries, illegal questions still arise in the interview process in Australian workplaces. Candidates have a right to refuse to answer these questions and, if pressed, may pursue legal action through regulators such as the FWC, Fair Work Ombudsman or the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Should you wish to discuss any aspect of employment law then please contact Robert Lamb on 3220 1144 or email.

This article was originally published in HRM. HRM is a website and magazine owned by the Australian HR Institute and managed by publishing agency Mahlab. The site contains essential news, resources and information for human resource professionals and workplace leaders in particular. You can find articles featuring the latest developments in HR and career management or search the site to find an article of interest for your organisation or for your own professional interests.

The information in this blog is intended only to provide a general overview and has not been prepared with a view to any particular situation or set of circumstances. It is not intended to be comprehensive nor does it constitute legal advice. While we attempt to ensure the information is current and accurate we do not guarantee its currency and accuracy. You should seek legal or other professional advice before acting or relying on any of the information in this blog as it may not be appropriate for your individual circumstances.

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