Ask Better Questions In a Job Interview to Prevent Discrimination

Last month I contributed to this crowd-funded video tackling gender bias in job interviews.

The video has the theme “If you wouldn’t ask a man, or you wouldn’t ask your gran – then #askbetterquestions”.

In the video discriminatory job interview questions are brought to light.

Given my background in recruitment and in the interest of helping to educate the market about job interview questions, I’ve penned this post.

Interview questions must relate to the responsibilities of the position, not the personal details of the candidate. 

For example, rather than asking:

“When are you planning on having children”, or

“Do you have any children?”, or

“How old are your children”

Better questions to ask are:

Are you available to work overtime when required?

Can you travel for work?

What days are you available to work?

You may be required to travel or work overtime on short notice. Are you able to meet these requirements?

It’s understandable that an employer would seek to determine if a candidate can meet the demands of the job.  How much flexibility the candidate offers in relation to their other commitments outside of work hours is relevant in the selection process.

By asking better questions the interviewer and interviewee can then engage in an appropriate discussion regarding flexibility and terms can then be negotiated respectfully.

Behind the scenes at #askbetterquestions campaign
Behind the scenes at #askbetterquestions campaign

What is a discriminatory question?

In Australia, the US, the UK and many other countries, laws protect candidates against discrimination in job interviews.

A discriminatory question is one that may exclude potential employees on the basis of sex, marital status, pregnancy, family responsibilities or family status, race, colour or national origin, religion or political beliefs, health and physical abilities or disability, age, birthplace, gender history or sexual orientation.

Some occupations require a greater level of disclosure in job interviews, for example police officers, priests and diplomats. However for the majority of job types, a candidate isn’t required to reveal personal details, such as if they plan to have children, what their age is, or if they go to church on Sundays.

Three key considerations are:

  1. Is the question related to a genuine occupational requirement?
  2. Is the question relevant to the job description and selection criteria?
  3. Is the question asking about one of the protected categories? (sex, marital status, pregnancy, family responsibilities or family status, race, colour or national origin, religion or political beliefs, health and physical abilities or disability, age, birthplace, gender history or sexual orientation)

Ask better interview questions to avoid discrimination

A few years ago I was co-interviewing with a manager and he tried to warm up a candidate by asking the question:

“So, where are you from?”

The intentions of the manager were likely innocent, the candidate had an accent and the manager thought he was making the candidate feel at ease by some chit chat. Yet, he was asking a potentially discriminatory question because the candidate may have felt they should to divulge their ethnicity – which is a protected category. After the interview I explained to the manager that the question wasn’t appropriate for a job interview and he understood.

Ask Better QuestionsIn a Job InterviewHere in Australia, Federal, State and Local legislation applies to interview processes. For example, the Equal Opportunity Act, Fair Work Act, Racial Discrimination Act, Sex Discrimination Act, Age Discrimination Act, Privacy laws and others set limits on the content questions can refer to.

The laws provide important boundaries in society, however if an interviewer hasn’t been trained on which questions are discriminatory they may not be aware they are crossing the line. An interviewer is a representative of an organisation, as such they are accountable to comply with relevant legislation. In my 10 years of conducting job interviews, I have found most managers understand the limits, however a small number either don’t understand or choose to ignore them.

Part of being human means we view the world through our own lens. This includes inbuilt unconscious biases toward or against the characteristics of others. These biases, if left unchecked, can trip us up in a recruitment process.

During a recent engagement I assisted a client to design and deliver interview skills training to managers because the organisation was committed to improving the quality of their recruitment process and to  reduce the risk of a discrimination occurring.

Here are some tips to ask better questions:

  • Understand the laws relevant to your location
  • Learn about unconscious bias
  • Be clear what questions you can and can’t ask in a job interview
  • Plan your list of interview questions prior the interview
  • Phrase questions clearly and succinctly to avoid ambiguity
  • Carry out a structured interview process
Shireen DuPreez

I’m a corporate recruiter with more than 10 years of experience helping companies hire talent at all levels. I’ve coached managers on how to conduct effective and legally compliant interviews. For information about interview and recruitment skills training contact me direct on +61 (0)414 767 821 or

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