Careers advice

Illegal interview questions NZ employers can’t ask

You don’t have to answer any of these.

In job interviews, it’s easy to think that the people asking the questions have all the power. After all, you’re there trying to impress and show them that you’re the person they need on their team.

However, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean you have to answer any question the hiring manager puts to you. In fact, there are some interview questions that are illegal for employers to ask prospective employees.

While the vast majority of employers know where the line is, and wouldn’t want to put you in the awkward position of having to answer one of these questions, it’s important you know what they are.

Questions job interviewers can’t ask you

You’ll notice as you look through the list below that there’s a common theme running through the types of questions that job interviewers can’t legally ask – discrimination. The law in NZ illegalises questions that aren’t relevant to your ability to do the job, but that an employer might use unfairly to make a decision about your application. There are, however, some important exceptions to some of these, which we’ll go into where relevant.

1. Do you have children, or do you plan to?

It’s pretty clear why this question isn’t acceptable. Unscrupulous employers may discriminate against applicants who have kids, or plan to, because they don’t want to have to hire temporary staff while you go on parental leave.

In New Zealand, you’re entitled to parental leave as an employment right, so the employer is asking questions like this, it’s a pretty good indication that they might not be the best to work for.

2. Questions about your partner

This really comes down to what you’re comfortable with, but just know that you’re under no obligation to reveal any information about your partner (and, indeed, whether or not you have one).

One reason to be wary about these types of questions is that it can be a subtle way for the employer to discover your sexual orientation, which may be used to discriminate against you if the employer is homophobic.

You don't need to answer questions about your personal life.

3. How old are you?

Agism is another form of discrimination with an unfortunately long history when it comes to employment. Again, it all comes back to the fact that this stuff doesn’t influence your ability to get the job done, so employers have no need to ask such questions. You should also be aware of sneaky ways that the employer could try and find out your age, such as asking when you left uni or school.

There are, however, some important common sense exceptions here. For example, you can’t work in the parts of a casino where gambling happens, or have job responsibilities related to gambling if you’re under 20. In this example, the employer has a duty of care to ensure that you’re old enough.

4. Were you born in New Zealand?

Another fairly obvious one – questions about where you or your family come from, or about your cultural background are completely inappropriate in a job interview and you should feel no obligation to answer.

5. Questions about your faith and politics

What you do or don’t believe in, and who you vote for have no impact on your ability to perform your job responsibilities.

It’s important to realise that being asked questions like this (and about anything on this list) is very non-standard and should be ringing alarm bells in your head regarding what it would be like to work for this person. It implies that they aren’t big on inclusivity, and probably don’t care a whole heap about their employees’ happiness.

6. Questions about your health

It’s illegal for employers to ask questions about how many sick days you’ve taken in the last year, or if you’ve previously left a job for health reasons. Like parental leave, you’re entitled to a set amount of sick leave per year (10 days in most cases), and employers shouldn’t be trying to scope out how much time you might take off per year during the job interview.

The only health-related questions that might be acceptable are when, for example, a certain degree of physical fitness is required for a role. However, questions about taking sick leave are never acceptable.

Except in limited circumstances, questions about your health and age aren't appropriate.

7. Do you have a clean slate conviction?

The so-called Clean Slate Act enables people who were convicted of crimes but didn’t serve prison sentences to legally hide their convictions if they meet certain criteria. It’s therefore completely wrong for employers to try and find out if you’ve been able to do this.

It’s important to realise, however, that clean slate convictions will still show up in employment criminal record checks for certain types of work that involve working with vulnerable groups like children.

8. Could you give us some insider information about your last employer?

This is really cheeky, but it does happen. Sometimes the hiring manager will look at your CV, see you’ve worked for a competitor (or just someone they want to copy) and view the interview as an opportunity to do some snooping.

Of course, you should expect to answer questions about what you do or did in your current/former roles, but be wary of these questions going beyond you to the wider company.

As well as reflecting badly on the person asking these questions, this is potentially dangerous for you, because, if you answer, you could be in breach of the duty of confidentiality you owe organisations you’ve worked for.

It's illegal for you to divulge information about your current or former employers in job interviews.

How to report illegal interview questions (and how to react)

Depending how inappropriate you think the question is, a good initial response can be to, politely, ask how this information relates to the job you’re applying for. It could be that the interviewer has genuinely not realised that what they’re asking is inappropriate, and they think they’re just making small talk about your life. Responding neutrally in the first instance can help to avoid awkward situations while also reminding them to get back on track.

Remember that if the interviewer asks for information about your former employer, you need to be careful, as this has potential to get you into choppy waters as well. In this case, we’d recommend responding by simply saying that it’s something you can’t talk about.

If you’re feeling increasingly uncomfortable by the questions you’re being asked, and think that the employer might be being discriminatory, you have no obligation to sit there and take it. Chances are, if this happens, you might have decided that this isn’t who you want to work for, and you can politely but firmly bring the interview to an end.

If you want to report an employer who has asked illegal job interview questions, you can do so by making a complaint to the New Zealand Human Rights Commission. This body deals with instances where human rights have been abused or disregarded, and they can help walk you through the process.