Cringey (and Illegal) Interview Questions, and How to Get Past Them

By Mia Casey

(Note: read on to the end to learn about an awesome opportunity for students looking to kick-start their careers!)

Interviews are tough enough already without the interviewer asking you super uncomfortable (and sometimes illegal) questions. I mean, it’s just a teensy bit intrusive to ask someone whether they plan to have children within the next few years, or if they were born in Australia.

If you’re in the middle of the job search process, then you may have already come across a few questions that make you pause in discomfort. And unfortunately, you’re not alone. There are countless articles noting peoples’ experiences with terrible interview questions, all of them more cringe-worthy than the last.

So what questions are employers not allowed to ask? And what can you do if they do ask something inappropriate?

Um, you can’t ask me that: anti-discrimination law in NSW

According to the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW, employers must not mistreat potential employees because of their:

  • Age;
  • Carer’s responsibilities;
  • Disability;
  • Sexual orientation;
  • Martial or domestic status;
  • Religion;
  • Physical features;
  • Race;
  • Sex (including pregnancy and breastfeeding); or
  • Transgender status.

In an interview environment, this translates to employers being unable to question you on such characteristics unless they relate directly to your ability to do specific work (eg. if an applicant is pregnant, and the position they are applying for involves physical labour, etc.). Even when such questions are allowed, they need to be phrased in a sensitive manner.

Basically, employers cannot decide whether or not to hire you based on any of the listed details, and asking questions based around said details may lead an employer to (intentionally or not) discriminate against you.  (For more info, check out the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW website).

Common questions you may encounter that relate to these characteristics include:

  • Do you have kids?
  • Were you born in Australia?
  • What’s your nationality?
  • Are you religious?
  • Is English your first language?
  • Are you planning to have kids anytime soon?
  • Are you married, or single?
  • Are you gay?
  • Do you go to church?
  • Where were your parents born?

What do I do if I am asked something dodgy?

Some people have had some truly awful interview experiences. Speaking to the BBC, one interviewee told of how a potential employer brought out a straw hat:

‘”Put this hat over your face and tell me why I should give you a job,” he said.

“Why do you want me to do that?” she said.

He replied: “In my experience, pretty girls like you rely too much on their looks.”’ (BBC, May 2017)

Naturally, she was very upset after the interview, and turned down the job when offered it.

If an employer asks you a question that falls under these categories, makes you uncomfortable, or seems just plain dodgy, you can politely refuse to answer. Good employers should immediately recognise their error and move on without issue (or just straight up not ask these questions in the first place!). But if they continue with the line of questioning, or you feel that they immediately decide that you’re unsuitable based on your refusal to answer, you can seek legal counsel.

It’s important to remain polite, and try to assess why the employer is asking such questions. Are they trying to be friendly and get to know you, without realising that such questions may be discriminatory? Or are they trying to get this information without any basis in fair hiring practices, because of their own discriminatory bias? It may be difficult to differentiate when you’re there in the moment!

Amelia Walsh from the Performance Education Group recommends that you:

‘…try and determine what type of information the interviewer is trying to ascertain with their choice of questions. If the question is personal and not related to your ability to perform the duties required of the role, then you may choose to politely ask the interviewer why that question is relevant to the job or to say that you would prefer not to answer that question.’

Obviously, when you’re in an interview because you really want the job, there’s going to be pressure to answer all of their questions. While you are allowed to do so, these questions should set off alarm bells in your mind about the company you are applying to work for. Just remember that you do have rights, and you deserve to be shown respect regardless of the employer or situation.


Helpful resources on anti-discrimination law in recruiting practice:



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Featured image courtesy of Unsplash.


Author: Mia Casey

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