INTERVIEW QUESTIONS | What you can and can’t ask potential employees

There some interview questions that are best avoided, even though you might be tempted to give potential employees a grilling.

Although they might not be through the door yet, asking a candidate inappropriate questions at an interview is potentially dangerous territory.

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.

Protected characteristics are:

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

Any questions that touch upon candidates’ protected characteristics are best left out of any interview situation, as probing into these areas can leave employers open to a lawsuit. You should certainly 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.

Questions to avoid that could be discriminatory

  • “How old are you?
  • “When do you plan on retiring?”
  • “How do you feel about managing a team of younger people?”
  • “Are you married?”
  • “How many children do you have?”
  • “How do you plan on balancing work and childcare arrangements?”
  • “Do you want children?”
  • “What does your husband do?”
  • “Where do you come from?”
  • “Is English your first language?”
  • “What political party do you belong to?”

By asking these kinds of questions, if you later decide not to hire the candidate, no matter how valid the reason, they would have reasonable grounds to allege discrimination.

What can you ask?

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. Likewise, under the Race Relations Act, employers may have grounds to employ only individuals of a particular racial background for “authenticity” purposes within a particular setting, such as Spanish or Indian restaurants.

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 is therefore unlikely to be discriminatory.

Interview Question Top Tips

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 fall into the trap of thinking they are in the driving seat – 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.

It is also important to remember that interviews aren’t just for the candidate to impress you but for you to present your business in a positive light to potential candidates. The questions you ask will reflect your values, so it is important to remain professional throughout.

If you’re currently recruiting and are in need of Employment Law support, contact Ellis Whittam on 0345 226 8393.

Director of Legal Services

James Tamm

Whether you’re facing an immediate challenge or just want the reassurance of an expert second opinion, we’re here to offer clear, commercial advice so that you can focus on what you do best.

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Call us on 0345 226 8393.

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We combine the service quality of a law firm with the certainty of fixed-fee services to provide expert, solutions-focused Employment LawHR and Health & Safety support tailored to employers.

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