Career Tips

Human Rights and You: What Can Employers Ask?

Job search resources will tell you that the best way to prepare for an interview is to anticipate what you might be asked and practice your responses. But how do you prepare for inappropriate questions? What if an employer asks about your age, race, marital status or religion? How would you respond?

The best approach is to be informed. In Canada, human rights are protected under the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act. Some employers might not be well informed about this legislation and may ask inappropriate questions. You’ll need to prepare for this possibility so you’re not caught off guard in an interview. This tip will give you some strategies for handling inappropriate questions and will help you understand what employers can and can’t ask you on a job application or in an interview.

What can employers ask?

It is acceptable for potential employers to ask:

About your ability to fulfill work-related requirements, such as your ability to work night shifts, travel or lift heavy items.

For any previous names you have held if the information is needed to complete reference checks or verify your past employment or education.

For your previous address if, for example, the job has a residency requirement.

If you are legally permitted to work in Canada.

What questions are unacceptable?

Generally, any information that could intentionally or inadvertently be used to discriminate against you or restrict or deny your employment is off-limits. This includes:

Information specific to gender, marital status, family status or next of kin (your plans for marriage or child care, for example).

Sources of income, unless it concerns former employment.

Your maiden name, "Christian" name or the origin of your name (it is acceptable to request previous names specifically to complete reference checks or verify past employment or education).

your age or date of birth can verify if you are legally permitted to work in Canada or, in the case of a job that has a minimum age requirement, ask if you are 18 years of age or older).

Your previous address, unless it meets a business purpose acceptable under the Act.

Your height or weight.

Your birthplace or ancestry.

Your sexual orientation.

Specific questions about club and organization memberships, hobbies or interests that would indicate race, religious beliefs, ancestry or place of origin (job-related questions are acceptable).

Questions about present or previous health problems, Workers’ Compensation Board claims, or any absence due to stress or mental illness.

Questions about citizenship other than Canadian, or languages not required for the job.

Questions about religious beliefs, including which religious holidays and customs you observe.

Questions about military service outside of Canada, unless there is an acceptable business-related purpose.

Requesting a photograph, which could reveal factors such as race and gender (a modeling or entertainment position are situations where this may be acceptable). If an employer requires a photograph for business-related purposes, they can ask for it after an offer of employment has been made.

How to handle inappropriate questions

When faced with an inappropriate question or request for information on an application form or in an interview, you can respond in a number of ways. You could:

Write "not applicable" on the application form or politely refuse to answer the question. Or tactfully let the employer know the question is inappropriate.

Answer the question and go on to discuss the underlying concern that has prompted the employer to ask the question. For example, an employer who inappropriately asks about your family plans or the number of children you have might incorrectly assume you are more likely to be absent because of parental leave or sick time. In this case you could address the underlying concern by talking about your excellent attendance record and your ability to do the job.

Answer only the underlying concern however you choose to answer, be professional and diplomatic.


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