Inappropriate questions at job interviews lead to payouts for discrimination

If you are an employer, you cannot be too careful about the questions you ask at the interview stage of the recruitment process. Two recent decisions from the WRC (Workplace Relations Commission) give us a blunt reminder on this point.

Where are you from?

One employer was ordered to pay €1,500 to an unsuccessful candidate who brought a discrimination claim. She had been asked at the interview where she was from originally.

In the course of the interview one of the questions put to the headscarf wearing candidate was where she was from. When she answered ‘Germany’ she was pursued on the matter and was asked where she was from originally.

The candidate had moved from Algeria to Germany with her parents when she was a child and moved to Ireland nine years ago.

The adjudication officer found against the employer and awarded €1,500 to the woman and found that the employer was not asking Irish candidates or non-headscarf wearing candidates where they were from.

The employer gave evidence that he could not remember if he had asked the other candidates where they were from. The adjudication officer held that it was not an appropriate question.

Have you the energy for this role?

In a different case an assistant principal of Gormanston college brought a similar claim for discrimination in the course of a job interview. He had been asked if he had the energy to perform a new role for which he had applied.

The assistance principal, who is 60 years of age, felt this question was discriminatory on the grounds of age and noted that the role had gone to the only other candidate who was 30 years younger.

His position was that a question related to his energy was inextricably linked to his age and was, therefore, discriminatory. He gave evidence of attending a gym at 5 am each day to keep fit.

The school’s position was that it was reasonable to ask a question which explored the candidate’s ability to take on extra hours and work as part of the new role. They also argued that the mere fact that the successful candidate was younger than the complainant did not establish a prima facie case of discrimination and the same question would have been asked of any member of the senior management team.

They claimed the reference to the candidate’s “stage” of career referred not to his age but to the current stage of his career, which was in senior management.

The adjudication officer held that it was reasonable to conclude that such a question about energy “is motivated in some way to subjectively compare one candidate against another, and in the circumstances of the within case that comparison is directly or indirectly related to the age of the candidates.”

Gormanston college was ordered to pay €3,300 compensation.

Takeaway for employers

Employers need to be careful that they do not ask questions of candidates but not others which may leave open the claim that the question is prompted by some subjective view of the candidate such as nationality or age or religion.

It is easy to form quick views of persons at interview, but your questions should be drawn up in advance and not based on seat of the pants judgment.