Knowledge Centre

What Can I Legally Be Asked at An Interview?

Written By - Channon Sharples - July 02,2014

No matter how much you prepare, some interview questions can be difficult to answer.

However, whilst we’ve already covered some common interview questions and some of the less conventional, what happens when you’re asked something that doesn’t seem to relate to the job at hand? And what if the question has legal implications you’re unaware of?

To help you know exactly what can and can’t be asked, here’s a list of questions which may not legally be acceptable, and how to answer them should they arise:

Are you from the UK/ Is English your first language?

By law, employers must check that applicants are eligible to work within the UK. However, any other questions relating to race, religion or native language are expressly prohibited, as they could raise questions of discrimination.

There may be a requirement for staff to speak fluently in order to operate effectively, but there is absolutely no obligation in most cases for this to be your mother tongue. 

How you could answer: ‘I am fully eligible to work in the UK, and speak English fluently’ 

What they can ask: ‘What languages do you fluently write or speak?’

Are you married?

Any questions about marital status, children and future family plans cannot legally be asked at an interview. 

Not only are these questions of a personal and potentially discriminatory nature, this particular line of questioning could also be used to determine a person’s sexual orientation - something which has no bearing on a candidate’s ability to do the job.  

How you could answer: ‘I like to keep my personal and professional life separate’.

What they can ask: ‘Do you have any current commitments which may affect your ability to do this job, or which may impact your attendance?’

How old are you?

Although this seems like quite an innocent question on the surface, there are very few reasons an employer may legally ask for your age.

Of course, you will need to be over 18 years of age to sell certain products (alcohol, for example). However, beyond stating that you are over this age, an employer is not allowed to ask for specific details.

Any other questions relating to age, however, may inform an interviewer’s decision and could, therefore, be classed as discrimination. Some hiring managers may attempt to ask this question subtly, such as asking for a date of birth for their records, when you graduated and potential retirement plans, but these are similarly prohibited.

How you could answer: ‘Old enough…’

What they can ask: ‘Are you over 18?’

How many sickness days did you take in your last period of employment?

It is unlawful for an interviewer to ask about health or disability issues before a position has been offered. Questions about previous sickness absence fall into this category.

The only circumstances in which this type of question can be asked is to establish whether an applicant needs an assessment to determine their suitability for the job, or to determine whether adjustments need to be made in order to adequately accommodate a candidate’s needs.

Once a position has been offered, the employer can make enquiries into health, but only if these relate to your ability to carry out the role effectively. For more information, you can refer to the Equality Act (2010).

How you could answer: ‘Sickness was not a problem in my previous role’

What they can ask: ‘Do you have any specific requirements in order to perform this job effectively?’

Do you have any previous criminal convictions?

There is no obligation for a candidate to disclose criminal convictions if the sentence has already been spent. In fact, it is illegal for an employer to refuse employment to an individual because of a previous crime, unless, of course, it relates to the role in question (for example teacher, childminder, a senior banking or financial role).

Also, it is worth bearing in mind that criminal records checks are carried out by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) for certain roles (e.g. working with children, healthcare etc.), but this should be undertaken by employers before the interview stage. These were formerly known as CRB checks.

How you could answer: ‘Can I ask how this relates to the role?’

What they can ask: ‘Do you know of any reasons why you may not legally be able to take this position?

Other questions you can’t be asked: ‘What religion are you?’, ‘what are your sexual preferences?’, ‘are you a trade union member?’, ‘Shall we discuss this further over drinks?’   

Final thoughts

This is by no means a definitive list. There are a number of other questions which may arise, and the same themes could be asked in a variety of ways.

If in doubt, remember: you should only be interviewed on your ability to do the job. Any question relating to your personal life, age or ethnicity do not tick this box.   

However, for certain jobs, some of these factors may directly impact your performance. If they are specific to the role in question, it may not be against the law to ask them. To learn more, information is available about occupational requirements.  

Finally, for the ‘how to answer’ section, go with the flow of the interview. If you’ve built a good rapport and feel confident, feel free to answer with some degree of humour.

However, if you are asked something you’re simply not comfortable answering, don’t be afraid to speak out. Most interviewers will be extremely understanding in this situation. And, if they’re not? It’s probably not an employer you should be working for.