The interview questions they're not allowed to ask

And how you should answer if they do

Updated: 
businesswoman interviewing male ...

We've all faced tricky questions in job interviews: explaining away that long period of unemployment or lack of reference is never easy.

But there are certain questions you should never be asked, as they could stray into the area of discrimination. Unfortunately, though, employers aren't always aware of this.

Last year, for example, employment law firm Thomas Mansfield surveyed UK job-seekers about the worst questions they'd ever been asked at interview and found some shocking examples (see below).

But, says Meredith Hurst, an employment lawyer with the firm, "With employment law information so readily available online, there really is no excuse for insensitive questions or illegal practices."

When it happens, of course, you're perfectly within your rights to point out that a question's illegal and refuse to answer. However, you may want to take a less confrontational approach, particularly if you think the question was thoughtless rather than potentially discriminatory.

We look at the questions employers can't ask (and the questions they can), and how you might answer.

Questions about age

Interviewers aren't allowed to ask you your age - unless, that is, you're applying for a job such as working in a bar where you have to be 18 or over. Nor are they allowed to ask you related questions such as how long you expect to work before retirement.

Questions about marital or parental status

Funnily enough, employers rarely seem all that interested in the partners, children or parenthood plans of men. Not so, though, when it comes to female interviewees.

Rest assured, though, it's illegal for an interviewer to ask you these things - or try to find the information out through, say, asking about your childcare arrangements.

Questions about race or religion

Interviewers can't ask about your race or where you were born, what your native language is or what your religious views are. They can, though, ask you whether you are eligible to work in the UK, or what languages you speak.

Questions about disability or illness

Under the Equality Act 2010, you can't be asked disability or health-related questions before you are offered a job - including questions about how many sick days you've taken. They can, though, ask you to explain any periods of unemployment on your CV.

Questions about lifestyle

While employers are perfectly entitled to set rules about how you behave at work, what you do at home is your own business. This means that interviewers aren't allowed to ask you about smoking, drinking or even drug use.

Neither can they ask you about your sexual orientation, or even your political views, unless these views are relevant to the job.

There are certain circumstances where employers are allowed to ask some of these questions. Under what are known as 'genuine occupational requirements' (GOR), employers can - in very limited circumstances - make certain specifications that would normally break the rules.

They can, for example, specify a black actor for, say, a particular role in a movie about Africa; or specify the sex of a person needed to work in a changing room or domestic violence refuge. They must, though, be able to prove that their requirements are justified.

Unfortunately, many employers are unaware of what they are and aren't allowed to ask.

And, sometimes, illegal questions are asked out of sheer clumsiness: an attempt to make conversation, perhaps. If you think this is the case, the best thing to do is to ask the interviewer why they're asking the question.

In some cases, you may find yourself facing illegal questions because the employer really is discriminatory, in which case the chances are you'll want to walk away.

You may even decide to contact the Equality Advisory Support Service or take a complaint to an employment tribunal.


The UK's worst interview questions (source: Thomas Mansfield)

"Will you be going back to Jamaica to work?" (Candidate was French)

"Do you get PMT?"

"What do you think about dating someone in the office?"

"Is that a hickey on your neck?" (It was a birthmark)

"When was the last time you did drugs?"

"Would you do this for free?"

"Are you planning on having children soon?"

"Can you wear more make-up next time?"

"Can you flirt with customers to make them stay longer?"

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