EDUCATION | Interview questions to avoid asking potential employees

There are few sectors where a rigorous recruitment process matters more than in education.

With overall pupil numbers projected to rise by 5% between 2018 and 2024, it’s more important than ever for employers in the education sector to really refine their interview technique.

When screening potential teaching staff, you want to make sure that candidates are not only qualified but a good fit for your school – and careful selection of interview questions is key to making informed recruitment decisions. The challenge for employers is to ask questions that support your aims, whilst also keeping in mind the potential legal implications of what you ask.

What does the law say?

The Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against an applicant, either directly or indirectly, on the basis of any “protected characteristics”.

These are:

  • Age;
  • Disability;
  • Gender reassignment;
  • Race;
  • Religion or belief;
  • Sex;
  • Sexual orientation;
  • Marriage and civil partnership; and
  • Pregnancy and maternity.

Any questions that touch upon candidates’ protected characteristics are best left out of any interview situation, as if you later decide not to hire the candidate, you could leave yourself open to a discrimination lawsuit.

In short, you should avoid asking any questions that may give candidates the impression that these characteristics have formed the basis of your decision not to hire them – or to hire someone else instead.

Remember, although you are not yet their employer, discrimination claims can still be brought in the pre-employment period.

Due to the nature of the job, it’s natural for employers to want to ask questions that will give them an in-depth insight into who the candidate is as an educator and as a person – but there are ways to do this without being personal.

10 Questions to avoid

  1. “How old are you?
  2. “When do you plan on retiring?”
  3. “How do you feel about managing a team of younger people?”
  4. “Are you married?”
  5. “How many children do you have?”
  6. “How do you plan on balancing work and childcare arrangements?”
  7. “Do you want children?”
  8. “What does your husband do?”
  9. “Where do you come from?”
  10. “Is English your first language?”

Instead, you should ask questions that assess the value they may bring to your organisation. 

Within education, behavioural questions (such as “how would you handle a parent who disputes a child’s grade?”) can really help you to understand how a candidate responded to previous situations (and therefore how they may respond when confronted with these situations in the future). 

This is far more productive (and far less risky) than fixating on a candidate’s protected characteristics.

How to get it right

While it is always safer to steer clear of any overly personal or sensitive topics, the Equality and Human Rights Commission advise that employers should avoid asking questions about someone’s protected characteristics unless they are very clearly related to the job.

For certain jobs, some of the above factors may directly impact an employee’s performance. These are often classed as Genuine Occupational Requirements (GORs). A GOR defence can be used in cases where the nature of the role makes it unsuitable for individuals with certain characteristics.

For example, it may apply where the essential nature of the job requires that it be carried out by a person of a particular sex, such as jobs which involve physical contact and therefore raise issues of privacy and decency.

In education, it may be permissible to ask a teacher about their religious beliefs, particularly in faith schools, but we recommend speaking to one of our Employment Law Advisers in this scenario as this can be a particularly tricky area.

It may also be appropriate for employers to ask questions about a candidate’s disability if it is, or may be, relevant to their ability to do the job and to assess any reasonable adjustments that would need to be made. For example, if the candidate’s disability means they may require extra time off work, this may be a factor that is considered relevant to their ability to do the job – and therefore may not be discriminatory.

5 top tips for making the most of an interview

Perhaps the easiest way of preventing going off-piste is to prepare a list of questions beforehand using the job description, person specification and application form as a starting point. While it may feel a little rigid to reel off questions from a sheet of A4, the questions you prepare shouldn’t stifle conversation, simply act as a prompt. As well as ensuring you don’t miss asking anything important, scripting the questions should help to avoid potentially inappropriate topics of conversation.

As far as possible, it is preferable to ask candidates the same set of questions in the same order. Of course, there may be specific issues relating to a particular candidate that you may wish to address, such as gaps in their employment, but conducting interviews in a structured manner should help ensure you are treating applicants equally and reduce your risk of discrimination claims.

When it comes to interviews, the goal is simple: assess an applicant’s suitability for the role. If you’re unsure whether a particular question is appropriate, ask yourself whether it helps you to achieve this aim; if not, it’s probably best to steer the conversation back on track.

It’s always a good idea to thoroughly read and familiarise yourself with the employee’s CV and application before the interview. By ensuring you have a good understanding of their employment history, you can keep the conversation related to their skills and experience and avoid venturing into potentially problematic areas.

Employers may be forgiven for assuming that they’re in the driving seat in an interview situation – after all, if you decide not to hire a candidate, you’ll likely never hear from them again. However, with sites like Glassdoor, what happens in the interview room doesn’t always stay in the interview room – so even if you decide halfway through that the candidate isn’t right for the job, keep in mind that negative reviews may tarnish your reputation or deter other candidates from applying in future.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to potentially delicate interview questions, it’s always best to err on the side of caution – or if you feel that you need to probe into sensitive topics as it relates to the candidate’s ability to do the job, it’s best to seek advice from an Employment Law Adviser first.

With reports of a recruitment crisis, we understand that employers in the education sector are keen to make sure that employees are a strong and lasting fit. Rather than overstepping the mark, well-thought-out interview questions accompanied by a thorough induction process will eliminate risk and help retain employees for the long term.

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If you’re currently recruiting and are in need of Employment Law support, contact Ellis Whittam on 0345 226 8393 or find out more about how we support employers in the education sector with their Employment Law, HR and Health & Safety requirements.

Our legal experts work with education providers to support their recruitment process. We strive to build close relationships with our clients to gain a full understanding of their needs so that we can provide guidance accordingly. This includes drafting of handbooks, policies and contracts, plus specialist advice on any issues you may face during the recruitment process or at any employment stage.