job interview questions
Long Reads

The sexist job interview questions an employer should never ask

Your personal life should have no role in whether a company decides to give you a job. So where are sexist questions relating to marital status and children still being asked? Stylist investigates.

When it comes to job interviews, we all expect to have to answer questions about why we’re the best person for the job. As a freelance writer and marketer, I’m used to it.

Usually these questions are about my skills, ability and experience. They’re about how well I can perform the writing and marketing duties set out before me, and the value I will bring to the company. In the context of a job interview, my personal life has never been of interest.

Until last week. Whilst on a Skype interview for a flexible, home based, marketing role, the HR Director asked me if I was in a relationship or single. It caught me off guard. Why on earth would she need to know that?

When I put the question to her, she said the company needed to know what my commitments were, and whether I would be distracted from the company. She then went on to ask if I had children – yet another question I was not expecting to be asked.

job interview
Job interview questions: you should not be grilled about your personal life during a job interview.

This grilling about my personal life is not only irrelevant (are people on Tinder worse at their jobs? Does being in a seven year relationship make you a better employee than if you’re in a fledging one, dizzy on lust?). It is also illegal.

Well… sort of. Marital status is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. What this means is that, like your gender, race, age, disability, religion, whether you have children, and your sexual orientation, it cannot be used to discriminate against you. In other words, an interviewer can’t decide whether or not to give you a job by using this as evidence. That doesn’t mean they can’t ask you about it – they just can’t use the information to make a decision. And that’s where it gets murky – how do you know if they have used the information?

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Gillian McAteer, head of employment law at Citation, a UK business that provides HR and employment law services, says that it’s really not very sensible to ask the question.

“By asking this question, the employer is opening the door for unsuccessful candidates to argue that the reason for their failure to be appointed was the marital status they disclosed. Even if that is not true, the employer could be faced with the evidential burden of proving that this was not the case in potentially expensive, time-consuming tribunal litigation.”

Sarah Evans, employment lawyer and Partner at JMW Solicitors agrees, and explains some of the nuances in the law.

“Asking someone about their relationship status in a job interview is unwise and very risky,” she says. “Most employers know now not to ask someone if they are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant when considering whether to offer a job, and the same applies to marriage and civil partnership, albeit with a few exceptions.

“For example, while the status of marriage and civil partnership is protected, not being married – or not yet married – doesn’t benefit from the same level of protection. So, if your application for a job is rejected because you aren’t married – or not yet married – then you aren’t afforded any protection. However, if you’re rejected because you are married, or in a civil partnership, then that would be unlawful.”

freelance career
Job interview questions: your marital status and whether you have children or not are protected under The Equality Act 2010.

During the aforementioned interview, it was made plain to me that the information was going to be used to make a decision on whether or not to hire me. The woman I spoke to (and the situation surprises me even more because she was a woman – I expected solidarity for the struggles that women face in the workplace) said she needed to know whether I could work weekends and evenings, and whether I was in a relationship or had children and would be distracted by them. She was far from subtle. I quickly ended the call, as this was clearly not the company for me.

I took to social media to tweet about what happened to me, expecting to get a bit of solidarity from writing and freelance communities. But the response was overwhelming: my phone didn’t stop buzzing. The tweet has had (at the time of writing) 1.5 million impressions, over 3,000 comments, and 14,100 likes. Alongside humorous GIFs pointing out why these questions were definitely a giant red flag, many people commented on how they were shocked that this kind of discrimination was still happening, and shared their own stories of similar experiences.

One woman commented to recall a past interview at a press office when she was in her early 20s, and had a young son. “The communications director flat out asked me if I intended to have any more children,” she wrote. “I was a bit taken aback, but said the first words that came into my head: ’Would you be asking that if I was a man?’ I left [the interview] fuming.”

Another woman reported that one CEO of a major magazine company often said he only liked to hire “over 40s or gays as there was no chance of babies” – an appalling revelation.

And yet another commented on a similar experience: “I once had a potential employer ask if I planned to start a family in the next few years, as they ‘didn’t want to go through the hassle of finding maternity cover’,” she wrote.

Job interview questions: a number of women take their engagement ring off when they go for job interviews, because they don’t want to give the impression that they’re about to get married and have children.

A number of women said they take their engagement ring off when they go for job interviews, because they don’t want to give the impression that they’re about to get married and have children. Others said they wouldn’t mention husbands or children at all, even during small talk at the beginning or end of interviews, in case it affected the decision.

Hundreds of people on Twitter questioned whether my interviewer would have asked the same questions of a man. The consensus was: probably not. The question is clearly discriminatory against women who are more likely to have children or need to go on maternity leave.

So, are these sorts of questions legal? Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “Employers have no right to ask personal questions about relationships and family planning in interviews. Such attitudes are straight out of the dark ages and have no place in a modern working culture. I struggle to grasp what bearing anyone’s relationship status will have on their ability to do a job. Would they ask such questions to a man applying for the same role? All the evidence shows a diverse workforce leads to better business decisions and profits so why would they rule out a large section of talented people? Any employer that thinks these questions are acceptable opens themselves up to legal challenges and this business clearly needs to learn more about the basics of discrimination law.”

It’s both unfair and sad that we still live in a world where this happens. Having children or being in a relationship does not impact your skills, ability or experience. Your personal life should have no role in whether a company decides to give you a job. You don’t have to answer a question about it – and if the subject is broached, you should consider whether it’s the job for you. If someone asks you, you can decline to answer, or you can turn it back and ask why they need to know, making it clear that your marital status or children will have no bearing on how well you can do the job.

Challenge, complain, and walk away, safe in the knowledge you’ve dodged a bullet. 

Other questions that an employer should never ask during a job interview:

  • How old are you?
  • What religion are you?
  • Are you a trade union member?
  • How many sick days did you take at your last job?

If you need any further advice about work, you can visit Citizens Advice here

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