Interviews: asking for trouble

The interview process really is a minefield, as a new report from Which? reminds us...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

With the discrimination laws being tightened up every year, there are now all sorts of apparently innocuous questions that could get you hauled before the beak even before the printing ink is dry on your rejection letter.

Which? reckons that many interviewers still don’t realise some of the questions that are completely off limits these days. Some are obvious, like questions about an applicant’s sexuality. And these days most people would probably steer clear of asking candidates about their plans to start a family. But the no-go areas now also include questions like ‘What are your childcare arrangements?’, ‘Are you a member of a trade union?’ and ‘What political party do you support?’ Even a polite enquiry about a person’s marital status could apparently get you in hot water.

As author Sue Tumelty puts it: ‘As employers can't judge a candidate’s ability to do the job on their age, sex or religious views, for example, they've no business asking about these things, so interviewees are in no way compelled to answer’. And to make life more difficult, it’s not as easy as just learning a list of banned questions and doing your damnedest to avoid them. You also need to be careful not to discriminate against your candidate’s right to flexible working, for instance.

Of course, anything that prevents candidates being refused a job on spurious or prejudicial grounds, when they’re perfectly capable of doing the role, has to be A Good Thing. But we do have the occasional tabloid-style ‘Political correctness gone mad!” moment when we hear about some of the questions that have got interviewers into trouble. We find it slightly hard to believe that everyone who asks a candidate about their childcare arrangements is a vicious narrow-minded bigot, for example.

And for small business owners, the possibility of a brand new employee immediately disappearing on maternity leave for six months represents a huge business risk – it may not be able to afford the time or the money to find someone else while still keeping the job open. So we can understand why employers in this situation want to factor the pregnancy issue into their thinking. After all, principles are all very well, but they don’t pay the rent…

Still, it’s probably fair that the law is weighted in favour of the interviewee (even if some unscrupulous rejects will try and take advantage) since the employer is usually in the position of power. Unless of course you’re trying to recruit a new manager for Newcastle United – in which case you just have to throw pots of cash at anyone who’ll even give you the time of day and beg them to say yes...

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