Illegal interview questions

Protect yourself in the job search — learn what information employers can’t ask of you
A photo of one person being interviewed by two others.

Job interviews are a common way for recruiters to determine if you have the necessary skills and personal qualities required for a position and find out if you’re a good fit with the organization's company culture. As you embark on the job search, it’s important to be aware of illegal interview questions that solicit information that may be used to discriminate against you.

What kind of information is protected?

During the application or interview, employers are prohibited from asking questions that might lead to discrimination in their hiring process. The information that’s protected includes things like your age, ethnicity, gender or sexuality, religion, disability, marital status and more. For your reference, Canada Human Resources Centre has a useful table that outlines legal vs. illegal questions. While you might feel comfortable sharing this information, understand that there is no obligation for you to provide an answer.

There’s usually a reason behind these questions, whether it’s positive or negative. An employer may ask an illegal question for the following reasons:

  1. The employer may not be aware the question is illegal due to inexperience or lack of knowledge
  2. The employer may be asking the question out of curiosity or personal interest
  3. The employer may be indicating the company culture (e.g. expectations of work hours, conduct, etc.)


Responding to questions that ask for protected information

If you know that an interviewer is asking for protected information, answering with, "That's an illegal question, you can't ask me that," might not always be appropriate. Responding to these questions is a matter of choice for the interviewee — you can share that information if you wish, but that information could be used in your selection.

Instead, you can find ways to respond that can address their question without disclosing your details. For instance, if an employer asks if you go to church, they might be trying to find out if you’re available to work on Saturdays and Sundays. You could answer this question by saying, "If you want to know my availability, I can work...".

You can also ask an employer how the question relates to the position you’re applying for. Chances are, the person asking the question is probably unaware that they have posed an illegal question.

Suppose you’ve tried various ways to redirect or respond, and the interviewer continues to ask inappropriate or illegal questions. In that case, you could ask in a neutral tone of voice, "Can you please help me understand how this question is relevant to the job I'm applying for?"; however you choose to answer, always aim to remain calm, be professional and tactful. For more tips on responding to these questions, check out TopResume’s Guide for Handling Inappropriate Interview Questions.

Are there exceptions for when an employer may inquire about information about the protected grounds?

Only when it is a Bona Fide Occupational Requirement (BFOR). A BFOR refers to a requirement that an employee/candidate needs to perform the essential components of a specific job. For example, to work at a liquor store, a candidate must be over 18 years of age; therefore, they may ask for the candidate's age.

Where can I get help if I’ve experienced discrimination?

When it comes to reporting discriminatory behaviour, there are several avenues you can pursue. Once you’re an employee, sometimes organizations have internal procedures to deal with and report discrimination. For instance, if the work environment is unionized, then you could contact the union. If it isn't, you can contact the human resources department.

If you feel that you’ve been intentionally discriminated against by an employer based on your gender, family status, race, religion, etc., there are resources you can access.  You can also contact the Alberta Human Rights Commission to discuss your experience and submit a complaint. It’s important to note that submitting a complaint is time-sensitive and must be made to the Commission within one year of the alleged discriminatory act.