7 Questions You Should Never Ask When Hiring

When you’re hiring for your startup, you have to be aware of discrimination and the conscious and unconscious biases your hiring team may have. It’s vital to ensure your hiring team is fully aware of the questions they can and can’t legally ask candidates during the interview process.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of areas to stay clear of when interviewing.

Racial Discrimination

This should be an obvious one. As an employer, you can’t discriminate against a candidate based on their race. This includes the candidate’s colour, nationality or ethnic origins.

Questions to avoid:

  • ‘Where were you born?’
  • ‘Where are you from?’
  • ‘How long have you lived in the UK?’
  • ‘Are you a UK citizen?’
  • ‘What’s your native language?’

Keep in mind, although you will want to find out if the candidate has Right to Work in the UK, it’s illegal to ask if they are a UK Citizen. The best way to ask is simply, ‘Do you have the right to work in the UK?’.

Also, it’s not illegal to decide whether or not to employ a candidate based on their fluency in English (both written and verbal).

Sexual Discrimination

Questions relating to a candidate’s marital status, plans to have a family, current family and sexual orientation should be avoided entirely.

This is an area of discrimination where many seemingly innocent questions will fall foul.

Questions to avoid:

  • ‘Are you married?’
  • ‘Any plans to get married?’
  • ‘Do you have any children – how old are they?’
  • ‘Do you plan on starting a family – when might this be?’
  • ‘Would the requirements of this job clash with family commitments?’
  • ‘Will you need to arrange childcare etc?’

Age Discrimination

As one of the more common forms of discrimination, age discrimination is often based on stereotypes resulting in conscious and unconscious bias. Unfortunately, age discrimination is present in many hiring processes, particularly in startups.

Questions to avoid:

  • ‘Are you not too young to be managing a team of this size?’
  • ‘Do you think you’re too old for this type of company?’
  • ‘How do you justify that salary for someone of your age?’

For clarity, using terms such as ‘recent graduate’ or ‘highly experienced’ in job adverts is absolutely fine, providing these are actual requirements of the job.

Disabilities Discrimination

As an employer, you are only obliged to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate a disabled person and, if a candidate would be unable to do the job despite these reasonable adjustments, you can reject their application.

This means you may legally ask the details of a candidates health or if they have a disability. Of course, there are limits.

Questions you can ask include:

  • ‘How would you carry out the role?’
  • ‘What adjustments would be needed to make to accommodate your disability?’

Questions to avoid:

  • ‘Won’t you struggle with this job considering your disability?’
  • ‘Were you born with your disability or did something happen?’
  • ‘How many sick days did you take last year?’

Keep in mind, candidates only need to briefly describe their disability and the adjustments that would need to be made so you shouldn’t need to ask questions to dive deeper on this.

In situations where a disabled person and non-disabled person both meet the job requirements, you can treat the disabled person more favourably.

Religious Discrimination

You can’t ask about a candidate’s religion – including which religion they practice and how they practice this. Any questions regarding a candidate’s religious beliefs, including a lack of belief, would be deemed as religious discrimination.

The requirements of the role you are hiring for may conflict with some religious beliefs and so you are within your right to explain the role in detail and ask the candidate is there is anything stopping them from meeting these requirements.

You may be able to adjust the requirements to meet a candidate’s religious practices but are under no obligation to do so if it compromises the role and business.

Questions to avoid:

  • ‘Do you practice any religion?’
  • ‘Do you believe in God?’
  • ‘How often do you engage in prayer?’

Lifestyle Choices Discrimination

You can’t ask about anything relating to the personal lifestyle choices of a candidate. This includes anything about how much alcohol they drink, if they smoke, use recreational drugs or gamble.

The company can set rules about what is and isn’t acceptable during working hours but what an employee does outside of working hours isn’t any business of the company.

There are some exceptions to this in industries which can legally carry our random drugs tests but it can’t be discussed during an interview.

Questions to avoid:

  • ‘Do you smoke?’
  • ‘How often do you drink?’
  • ‘Do you ever take drugs?’

Criminal Convictions

As an employer, you have the right to ask about convictions and imprisonments, particularly if the role is for a sensitive position such as working with children or vulnerable adults. This doesn’t extend to arrests without convictions or involvement in demonstrations.

Candidates can conceal spent convictions under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and, as an employer, you should not lead a candidate to believe they must disclose spent convictions as part of your company’s hiring policy.

Questions to ask:

  • ‘Do you have any unspent criminal convictions?’

Questions to avoid:

  • ‘Have you ever been convicted of a crime?’

Questioning candidates based on their criminal record can be complex and depend on if the role is ‘exempt’ or not. For more information on this, see here.

Membership / Affiliation Discrimination

You shouldn’t ask about a candidates membership or affiliation to any organisations, including trade unions, whether the candidate has included their memberships/affiliations on their CV or not.

If you become aware of any memberships or affiliations during the interview process, you can ask questions relating to whether the time commitment required by their membership to an organisation will affect their ability to do the job.

Questions to avoid

  • ‘Are you a member of a trade union?’
  • ‘Which organisations or societies are you involved with outside of work?’

When you can legally discriminate

There are some exemptions to the above, in limited circumstances, where there are genuine occupational requirements.

Under these circumstances, the employer can state specific requirements for applicants based on race, religion or national origin (e.g. white male, early 30’s, good physical shape for TV advert).

As long as you can prove your requirements are justified, you are within your right to discriminate in this way.

Discrimination is a complex issue and, as this is a non-exhaustive list, you should seek further advice if you’re concerned about discrimination when hiring at your startup.

Hopefully it serves as a useful guide to help your hiring team stay clear of any forms of discrimination, whether intentional or not, when making your next hire!

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At Hired By Startups, we help startups, scale-ups and VC backed companies hire really talented people and build teams that are more engaged and productive. Our dedicated onsite hiring service enables startups to see the benefits of having their own internal recruiter, with the flexibility of using an agency.

We’ve helped some of the UK’s best known and fastest growing startups scale their teams whilst saving 50% on their cost and time per hire. If you’re a startup looking to scale rapidly, get in touch to find out how we could help! For more info, check out us out here.

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About the author 

Tom Ladds

Hi, I’m Tom – Founder & CEO at Hired By Startups. You can connect with me on LinkedIn here.

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