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Canada: Avoid Inappropriate Interview Questions

A group of people sitting around a table in a business meeting.

​During a job interview, many Canadian employers understandably try to connect with candidates, but they should focus on discussing a potential hire's ability to perform essential job duties and avoid discriminatory inquiries.

According to the Canadian Human Rights Act, it is illegal for a federal-sector employer to ask candidates about their age, sex or gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, marital status, family status, race, color, religion, and mental or physical disability.

Most employees in Canada are governed by provincial legislation rather than the standards that protect federal-sector employees, meaning provincial human rights laws govern in 10 provinces and three territories, explained Lisa Stam, founder of SpringLaw in Toronto. But these provincial laws generally have prohibitions similar to those in the Canadian Human Rights Act.

"Inappropriate questions could get employers in trouble with human rights tribunals in their province or territory," said Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver. 

Detecting Inappropriate Interview Questions

Here are some interview questions Canadian employers should not ask, based on human rights guidelines:

  • Are you married? Do you have children? Do you plan to have kids? Experts say making a hiring decision based on marital or family status is illegal, so these questions should not come up during the job interview.
  • How old are you? It also is prohibited to ask during the interview when an applicant graduated from college or university.
  • Can you work evenings and/or weekends? Questions about an applicant's availability to work after hours could reveal information about his or her family status or religion, said Paul Boshyk, an attorney with McMillan in Toronto.
  • Where are you from? What religion do you practice? Questions about ethnicity, place of origin and religion are not allowed in a job interview—even when used as an icebreaker or when employers are making small talk, said Rene Beaulieu, a consultant and trainer based in Quebec City.

A job applicant may also construe these questions as discriminatory:

  • Do you have a criminal record? HR should not ask this question unless asking it is necessary to ascertain whether an offense is related to the position.
  • What are your political views? Employers should resist the urge to discuss political developments, as these topics may reveal information about the applicant's political beliefs and result in questions that are considered discriminatory in many provinces.
  • Are you eligible to work in Canada on a permanent basis? Nonetheless, employers are legally required to obtain proof of eligibility to work in Canada at the outset of the employment relationship, Boshyk said.

The 'Canadian Experience' Question

Newcomers to Canada who are entering the job market have voiced concerns about one question a potential employer may ask during an interview: "Tell us about your Canadian work experience."

"Canadian experience" may refer to a candidate's language and communications skills and knowledge of Canadian employment standards and legislation.

Human rights tribunals have held that "Canadian experience" questions may constitute discrimination, unless that kind of experience is a bona fide occupational requirement—qualifications that employers can consider when making decisions about the hiring and retention of employees. For instance, an HR manager should be up-to-date about Canadian legislation, Pau noted.

Experts advise employers to avoid questions about Canadian experience because it could imply the superiority of Canadian education and training. Instead, Pau said, HR should ask questions about a candidate's qualifications and requirements.

Stam added that employers should not ask questions inquiring how the candidate is the right "fit" for Canada's workplace culture. "Those [questions] are usually a land mine for human rights violations."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the Global Human Resources Discipline]

HR's Role in Framing Questions

Employers should create a barrier- and discrimination-free hiring process, experts say. Boshyk stated that HR departments must familiarize themselves with the prohibited grounds of discrimination, as well as with their province's human rights legislation.

"Make sure that the interviews are structured so employers are only seeking answers to questions about qualifications and job requirements," Stam said. "It may help to create a list of standard questions to ask every applicant."
Pau added that hiring managers—as well as panel members—should have training in proper interview protocol. "All people involved in the hiring process need to be aware of what's an appropriate conversation with a candidate," she concluded.

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.


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