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Questions you can and can’t ask in an interview

ted Learning Theatre of Learning drama based training
A survey in the  Daily Mail  in 2018 of over 1,100 decision-makers found that three out of five agreed a woman should have to disclose whether she was pregnant during the recruitment process and almost half thought it was alright to find out if women had young children.

Asking any of these questions would be illegal and a breach of the Equality Act 2010. So why do employers still want to ask this type of question?

Inevitably, some employers are concerned about the potential cost of covering and paying for maternity – the UK has some of the best maternity leave in the world, with parents able to take and share up to 12 months to care for their new born child. Both the mother and father can now share the responsibility, but it seems the question is only ever asked of women? So not only does this breach pregnancy and maternity elements of the Equality Act, it could also be sexist?

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said its study showed that many employers needed more support to better understand the basics of discrimination law and the rights of pregnant women and new mothers.

Recruitment needs to be fair, with all candidates given an opportunity to demonstrate the skills they could bring to the business and role, without expecting or experiencing questions that could judge their personal circumstances.

It is important to ensure the recruitment process is fair and that these types of questions, assumptions and actions are removed from the process to ensure ALL candidates are treated appropriately and LEGALLY.

But clearly, these types of questions are still being asked and often employers have no idea what they are asking is against the law – some may well be asking about a candidates children or family life as a way of making small talk to make the candidate feel at ease, completely unaware that they are breaking the law in doing so, and potentially damaging the brand’s reputation. Also, how is the candidate feeling? 20% of women asked about their family plans for the future have said they won’t be honest with their answer anyway for fear how it will affect their opportunities and career, so even asking the question, doesn’t ensure an accurate response.

Recent research found that nearly one in four (22%) have experienced discrimination during an interview, and the majority (39.3%) said it was because of their age.

Alongside this, one in 10 said they’ve felt prejudiced against because of their race, while 8.9% said it was because of their gender. This figure rose to 12% for women.

Questions should be focused on a candidate’s suitability to do the job, entirely focused on skills. We call this a competency based interview. Inevitably, candidates might disclose personal information during the interview and the key is to not use this as an opportunity to head in this direction. For example, during a conversation at the start of an interview, you might say “did you find getting here ok today?” a perfectly reasonable question, part of typical cliché conversation designed to put the candidate at ease before the formal interview commences and also quite telling in how the regular journey to work might be for them… What if the candidate responds “yes it was really easy, I dropped my two young children off at the childminder beforehand and then headed straight here, so no problems at all, the roads were nice and clear”

The candidate has volunteered this information – you didn’t ask anything about their personal circumstances at all. It would be natural (and indeed tempting) to say “oh great, how old are your children” or ask about their gender etc, feeling this was a natural conversation to have. The best advice though is to say something on the lines of “great, I am pleased you were able to get here easily” – does this appear rude? You haven’t mentioned the person’s children at all – could they be offended? The answer is yes, it could appear rude, yes they might think it’s odd you didn’t reference their children at all, but to be fair to the candidate, it important this doesn’t influence your decision and is therefore not mention. The positive is this person has arrangements in place to facilitate them working for you – they have applied for this role with childcare provision in place and therefore the assumption has to be this won’t be an issue. However, like any employee sometimes circumstances change and as a good manager we need to be flexible in our approach.

The Equality Act applies throughout the entire recruitment process – any questions that could be deemed to discriminate are illegal. Assumptions about age, religion, sexual orientation could impact a fair interview process. We all have prejudices – we develop them based on our upbringing, environment, education and other external influences.

When these influence our recruitment decisions and can mean we miss out on employing outstanding candidates. Perhaps the candidate went to a school that you don’t particularly rate – could this influence your decision? Or is of a different culture or faith? Perhaps they disclose their sexual orientation in the interview because of an assumption made. What if they disclose they have a disability? Under the Equality Act, disability is the single protected characteristic where someone can be treated MORE favourably. This means additional changes can be made to a role or environment to accommodate the individual and their disability.

A specific parking space could be made available for this individual’s exclusive use, a special type of desk, additional time to complete tasks, someone to proofread documents prior to them being sent out as just some examples of things you could do to support this individual in the workplace. 25% of disabled people are long-term unemployed because employers often feel they ‘wont be up to the role’ but this is often driven by a lack of understanding of the disability and how this person manages it – assumptions get in the way of decisions and good questioning specifically around someone’s understanding and ability to do a role should determine if this candidate is right or not.

It is time for all employers to ensure this antiquated approach to recruitment is finally laid to rest and that we challenge this practice. We need to ensure Managers fully understand the impact these types of questions have on your brand, and candidate experience and the message it sends out to all candidates who might be considering starting a family as to how they will sit with your organisation if these type of questions are asked.

Our Interview Skills course is delivered by expert trainers and will focus on creating a positive candidate experience whilst asking legal questions.
Justin Smith Essex - ted Learning Theatre of Learning drama based training
Justin Smith-Essex

Justin is the Group MD of ted Learning Group & one of the co-founders & Managing Director of ted Learning.

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