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Most people feel a bit vulnerable and exposed in an interview situation. This is only natural – you’re being asked questions that are designed to uncover your strengths, your personality and your weaknesses.

It’s important to know, however, that certain questions are off limits. Let’s take a look at some of the types of inappropriate questions that should raise alarm bells.

Outright discrimination

Some questions quite clearly have nothing to do with the role and this is immediately apparent. Questions about your ethnicity, sexual orientation, political persuasions, physical characteristics or religion are inappropriate and there are actually laws in place that provide protection for prospective employees in this situation. Know your rights – don’t hesitate to refuse to answer or simply end the interview immediately if you feel a line has been crossed. 

Seemingly innocuous (but still inappropriate) questions

There are some questions that may seem pretty innocent on the surface (and may well be asked with innocent intentions), however it’s still important to know that if you’re not comfortable answering something, you don’t have to. A question like “do you have kids?” could be perfectly innocuous and just the result of the interviewer’s curiosity. Or you might be being asked this for a more insidious reason.

Gut instinct comes into play here and context is important. For example, if the employer is telling a fun story about their own children because the topic comes up naturally in conversation and then they casually ask if you also have children, their motivations may well be totally innocent. Conversely, if you are discussing a specific element of the role or the work required of you and the interviewer suddenly asks about your children out of nowhere, they might harbor discriminatory views around the capacity of parents to meet career demands.

The important thing to remember is that you’re not obliged to answer this question either way – even if it is seemingly being asked with good intentions. It’s perfectly ok to say something like “thank you for asking, but I’d prefer to focus on the role today and how I might be of benefit to your organisation.”

Roundabout ways of asking inappropriate questions

Some interviewers may not be aware that they’re asking an inappropriate question, while others are very skilled at masking inappropriate questions with tricky language or red herrings. For example, “when did you graduate from university?” is actually an inappropriate question. The reason is that this question is potentially a roundabout way of trying to ascertain your age – and you are under no obligation to disclose your age if you don’t want to.

Another example is the question “where are you from?” The employer could be asking this because they are hoping you will divulge your ethnic background, but they have asked it in a way that if you challenged them on it, they could refute that and say they were simply asking about where you live. Regardless, you are not obliged to answer.

It’s easy in an interview situation to feel like the interviewer holds all the power; but remember that as a candidate, you have power too. You are also interviewing them – and any organisation that’s values don’t align with yours may not be somewhere you want to work. Furthermore, if the questioning is particularly egregious, you can seek legal advice or lodge a complaint with Fair Work.