Can employers ask personal details at interview: ask the expert

I have recently started looking for a job again after having my baby (he is now one). I am worried I may be discriminated against due to my circumstances and interview questions are becoming very hard to answer. What are prospective employers allowed to ask at interview? As so far I have been directly asked if I am married, if I have children and less directly why I want a part-time job rather than a full-time one. Also what is the ruling with Employment Agencies – are they allowed to ask these leading questions? I am just so worried about how an employer will judge me when he thinks I have a child – and only one child so he may be thinking I want another soon….I feel this has been an issue at a couple of interviews I have been for, and I may not have got the job due to this. Thanks for your help.

Discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, age, race etc is illegal, except in very rare circumstances which needn’t bother us now.  Employers and recruitment agencies are both covered by this legislation.  By extension, it’s illegal for employers and recruitment agencies to discriminate against candidates who may become pregnant at some stage in the future or who have childcare responsibiities.

Normally employers / recruitment agencies that act illegally are a bit more subtle in the way they go about it than has been your experience.  Are you applying to smallish employers who don’t know what the law requires of them (or who may choose to pretend they don’t!)?  That said, too many employers feel they can push the boundaries a bit in all directions now unemployment’s so high.

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I suggest you take the pragmatic approach.

If you’re faced with blatant discrimination (eg an employer who asks several discriminatory questions that have nothing to do with your ability to perform the job), then fight back.  Record what’s happened as soon as possible, get what supporting evidence you can and report the discriminatory behaviour to the recruiter’s seniors; also investigate how you take your case to an employment tribunal.  You’re unlikely to lose much by acting this way (the recruiter’s already decided not to offer you the job) and you might even gain (eg senior managers may find a way of reversing the recruiter’s decision in the hope of avoiding the adverse publicity and compensation costs of a successful tribunal claim).

If the recruiter seems honestly unaware of having asked an illegally discriminatory question (eg he’s the boss of a tiny business and this is the first interview he’s ever done), then try to deal with it in a pleasant, determined but non-confrontational way.  Your response to the question “you’re married, are you a mum as well?” asked while he’s getting you a coffee could well be to block the question with an interested, smiley “have you children?” and a quick diversion to “can we talk please about my suitability for your job …   you’ll see that I was able to increase sales by 20% over a 3 year period in my previous job ..”.  If the discriminatory questions persist, then you’ll have to confront (eg by looking straight at the recruiter, smiling and saying gently “now we both know that’s an illegal question – could we talk please about how I could help you improve the business’s credit control”).

Only you can judge whether you’re being asked about your interest in part-time work as a subtle way of finding about your family circumstances.  I suggest you respond to questions by saying “this job appeals to me and I’m happy with the hours you’re offering”, then shut up.  The recruiter will realise the potential risks of exploring the issue further and will probably decide not to do so.

Good luck.  Hope you feel more confident during future interviews.

Comments [10]

  • Steph Ellis says:

    I am filling in an application for a teaching assistant, these questions appear (along with the spelling mistakes;-)
    Are they legal?

    Marital Status
    Do you have caring responsibility for dependants?
    If yes, please specify who your dependants are (e.g. Children / Partner / Relative)
    Do you consider yourself to have a disability?

  • Sarah bank says:

    Hi I have been. Asked at an interview what are the personal reasons I left work previoUSly. I said they were family reasons and they wanted to know details.
    Is this allowed.

  • Anonymous says:

    I am trying to get back into work after a career break to raise my kids, I have had a few interviews but no luck, reading this tread it makes since now why i wasn't employed even though my experience and skills was perfect for the role, i was asked why i left my last role, i had to tell them it was to raise a family, so they asked how old are my kids now, who will pick them up from school, who will look after them in summer holidays, ? How can I work around the question without mentioning that I had to stop working to raise my kids.

    Editor: Just politely say that you are here to discuss your suitability for the role, not your childcare arrangements which you are perfectly able to sort out yourself. Just be calm, polite and firm. 

  • Anonymous says:

    Is an employer allowed to ask about your savings because you haven't worked for 12 months

    Editor: It is not something they cannot ask about on grounds of possible discrimination, but you are also free not to answer.

  • Anonymous says:

    Is an employer allowed to ask about a personal crisis / personal troubles in the recent past?

    Editor: What kind of crisis? Before you are offered a job, you cannot be asked health or disability related questions, for instance. After you are offered the job, you may be asked about your health but only insofar as it might affect your ability to do the job.

  • Anonymous says:

    Is a potential employer allowed to ask why you have been working part time?

    Editor: This could be a roundabout way of finding out if you have childcare responsibilities. As such, you could give a general response such as 'for personal reasons, but this is not relevant to my current application'.

  • Anonymous says:

    I was asked at an interview if I was married, divorced or single – I didn't know what to say as I was very taken aback so just said none of the above. There was also a veiled attempt at finding out my age – I was asked about some volunteer experience (uniformed service) and was asked how long ago it was – I didn't want to lie so said 20 odd years ago – now that put me in my 40s – I didn't think anything of it at the time but now I think about it is was a very clever way to ascertain it! – I didn't get the job – do I have any redress?

    Editor: Employers should not ask about marital status, children, your age or health record at interview and you can refuse to answer such questions. If you believe there is strong evidence that you didn't get the job because of this and your answers then you could claim discrimination.

  • Anonymous says:

    I was asked if I had any dependents at an interview – I know this is not allowed so what redress would I have if I don't get the job?

    Editor: You could claim discrimination, but it might be hard to prove that you didn't get the job due to that.

  • Anonymous says:

    I have just been for an interview today and was questioned about my child in respect to who would look after her in the school holidays, who would have her if she is sick, etc which I found quite uncomfortable. Is there a law to say these questions can’t be asked?

    Editor: Employers should avoid asking about a candidate’s children and childcare arrangements. Such questions tend to be viewed by employment tribunals as discriminatory against women because they assume that childcare and other family commitments may have a negative impact on a woman’s motivation, commitment to the job, attendance or availability to work overtime. Because such discriminatory assumptions would not be likely to be made about male candidates, questions of this nature are viewed as discriminatory on the ground of sex. 

  • Anonymous says:

    I have just been asked in an interview ‘What would I do if one of my children were poorly?’ Please advise if this is an illegal question.

    Editor: The following answer should help you - 

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