illegal interview questions

But what do you do if someone asks you discriminatory questions (in the middle of an interview for a medical job that you really want)?

Last year there was much discussion (and rightly so) about the topic of discriminatory selection practices and illegal interview questions that occur in medical training.
We wanted to write a post to remind both panel members and candidates that there are certain questions that you should not ask in an interview.

But we also wanted to give some advice to candidates about what you should do if it happens.  This is because sadly these sorts of scenarios remain common-place in our profession. Something we found out when we put out the call on social media for other doctors to share their experiences about discriminatory interview questions. We were inundated with responses.  We have included a select number of deidentified quotes in this article to illustrate the point.  It probably does not need to be pointed out but by far the majority of doctors we talked to who reported a problem with inappropriate or illegal interview questions were women.  That being said, this can and sometimes does happen to anyone.

For a Basic Physician Training interview:

Interviewer: β€œWhat else have you done besides have a baby?”

(as well as whether I was planning on another one and informing me that no time off in BPT was allowed and I would have to start again).

The women on the panel looked appalled.

In the preapplication information night the audience were told β€œno breaks in basic physician training unless you get pregnant with twins or develop lymphoma!”

Yep I’ve been asked if I planned to have kids in an interview.

They tried to soften the blow by prefacing it with – I’m not allowed to ask this but…..

illegal interview questions

Things they are not allowed to ask you – what are the illegal interview questions?

Let’s just get this bit right out of the way first.  There are a number of areas that according to Australian law are β€œout of bounds”.  The basic principle is that questions should only be used to discriminate between applicants when they relate to the candidate’s actual ability to perform the job regardless of other personal circumstances.  Asking other types of irrelevant questions at interview may disadvantage some people and could amount to discrimination.

Employers are required by law to ensure that discrimination does not occur when recruiting staff and this responsibility extends to ensuring that those involved in the selection process avoid asking discriminatory questions. In other words, employers are liable for the actions of the members of the selection panel.
Discrimination is illegal unless it is relevant to a person’s ability to perform the inherent tasks of the role.  Discrimination is specifically against the law in Australia if it is based on a person’s

  • age
  • disability
  • race, including colour, national or ethnic origin or immigrant status
  • sex, pregnancy, marital or relationship status, family responsibilities or breastfeeding
  • sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status

So, questions like:
β€œDo you plan to have children?” and β€œDo you really think you can complete training at your age?” are clearly not permitted and are illegal interview questions.

For a job as a GP registrar in a rural town:

Interviewer: β€œAre you single?”

(I was)

Interviewer: β€œWould you like a hand finding a nice local boy to settle down with?”

(I politely declined)

Other areas of possible discrimination

But it does not stop there, under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act, individuals can also lodge complaints with the Commission concerning discrimination in employment for a number of other reasons, including religion, political opinion, national extraction, nationality, social origin, medical record, trade union activity and even your criminal record.

While interviewing for entry onto the GP training program:

Interviewer: β€œWhat did you do with all your time on maternity leave?”

(I was proud of myself for completing the Diploma of Child Health during that period, so thats what I said)

Interviewer: β€œYeah and what else?”

Interviewing for GP training.  The Director of Training during a teleconference meeting, planning my training
DOT: β€œOlder trainees find it hard to settle down into training”

Grey Areas

A blatantly discriminatory question can and sadly still does happen.  In some situations, it’s a case of the interviewer not knowing better. But some do know and have also β€œwised up” to this and invented new and clever ways of finding out information about your personal details.

The pre-interview small talk can be an area of danger.  Some panels like to make candidates comfortable by kicking off with a bit of banter prior to the first actual question but this can often stray into the β€œtell us a bit about yourself?” question, which can then often lead into more personal topics such as β€œwhat does your partner do?” or of course a range of questions about children.

Interviewer: Where are you from?

Me: I grew up in Western Australia

Interviewer: No…what’s your background?

Me: My genetics? It’s a mess. Bit of everything but mainly a combination of communist and terrorist.

Interviewer: (Stern unimpressed frown)

Me: I guess I’m a world citizen with an Australian citizenship.

This was at an interview for O&G training an offer which I didn’t take up.

In the formal part of the interview, someone experienced will normally vet the set questions.  But there are still certain questions that interviewers can use to β€œfish” for information or as a chance to ask a β€œfollow-up” question of individual candidates.

Coping with the Stress of the Job?

One question we hate particularly, for a whole host of reasons is: β€œHow will you cope with the stress of this position?”

First of all, we should all be working hard to make sure that we make the job experience in medicine more civilised, so we don’t have to ask a question about coping with stress.  But more than that in most cases a β€œgood response” to this question would include an outline of social supports and how one balances work with other responsibilities. Which very handily gives the person asking the question the opportunity to probe a bit deeper into each candidate’s personal circumstances.

What should honest panel members be doing to prevent discrimination and illegal interview questions?

The first piece of advice we would give is β€œknow the law”.  Know what is discriminatory and know what you should not be asking about and why?  Most employers will offer training in recruitment and selection its wise to attend this as they will generally cover in depth equal employment opportunity.

The second piece of advice is to be aware that others on the panel may not be as well versed in β€œwhat’s ok to ask and what’s not ok”.  Sadly, not everyone who sits on a panel has undertaken the correct training.  Make sure you step in and guide another panel member if they are straying into inappropriate territory.

I’ve never been asked inappropriate questions but have had (on two separate occasions) older male interviewers say casually racist things (I’m Caucasian). Do they assume it’s ok to speak that way when there’s only white people in the room?

I was interviewed by a panel of 3 male GPs and as a closing question one asked if I was planning on having any more children, thankfully he was shut down by the other two before I had a chance to answer.

Panel members should step in to prevent illegal interview questions.

So many of the anecdotes we heard were about other panel members being uncomfortable but choosing not to step in.  Candidates are looking to know if it is just an isolated β€œdickhead on the panel” problem.  Or a more systemic cultural problem with the whole program. So what you do in this circumstance definitely does matter.

At my first Consultant interview one of the Consultants was a good female friend. She deliberately asked me about partners and pregnancy to see if it was challenged by the rest of the panel. Because this had happened to her at the same interview a few years prior and she had called them on it. I quoted all the reasons why it was none of the panel’s business and they all blustered an apology. We both had a good laugh about it afterwards as we celebrated with coffee. Didn’t happen to any of other female Consultants after that!

What should you do if confronted by an illegal interview question?

Of course, you can just tackle the question head-on and point out to the panel that it is inappropriate.  You might also ask them which selection criteria it addresses (they probably will not be able to answer).  But there may be a number of reasons why you don’t feel empowered to do this. From feeling disempowered. To not expecting the question. To really wanting the position and not wanting to put the panel offside by engaging in a conflict with a panel member.

A better strategy for many is to deflect the question by ignoring that part of the question which is discriminatory and focusing on the appropriate parts.

Deflecting the Question.

Sometimes this might require you to think a bit more about the rationale behind the interviewer’s question. For example, you might receive an initial question about the challenges of the position and your availability to work after hours shifts. A follow-up question might then centre around your childcare arrangements. This question may well stem from the interviewer’s concern for you and your family’s well-being OR it might just stem from a more self-centred concern about filling the roster.

Whilst a candidate can outline the panel their childcare arrangements in detail and go over the fact that they spend at least 2 hours a week coordinating diaries with their partner. The panel actually has no need for this information. Instead, you might respond by pointing out that in your last 3 appointments there were never any concerns about your ability to show up for work on time and participate in your share of the overtime roster. Thus, bringing the discussion back to job-related qualities.

Do you foresee any problems?

Another question that can commonly be used to discriminate against candidates is: β€œDo you foresee any problems in fulfilling the requirements of the position?” This question is obviously probing for a reason why a candidate might be at risk of not completing their contract.  The two big reasons why this might be the case are health-related and pregnancy-related. Again. We have to stress that both health and pregnancy are personal matters.  Ones which employers are not able to discriminate against employees. Moreover, employment law requires that employers make provision for employees requiring sick leave and maternity or paternity leave.

So you don’t actually have to tell them about any plans you have for children or any concerns that you might require sick leave as you will actually be able to take leave under your contract for these things.
Instead, we suggest just answering this sort of question with a simple β€œNo. I don’t foresee any issues with fulfilling the requirements of the position.”

The panel asked me the question of whether there was any reason that I was going to take time off the following year. I just told them right back that they couldn’t ask me that! They just all chuckled and said they just needed to organise the year.

What should you do afterwards?

Ok. You’ve managed to survive the interview. You are probably feeling either uncomfortable, anxious or annoyed or a bit of all three. These feelings may also turn into feeling conflicted at some stage. Especially if you were pinning your hopes on the job you were applying for. At this stage it’s a good idea to talk to someone else, be it a friend, a family member, a mentor, a union official or a lawyer. Something you may have to decide is whether you now want the job if it is offered to you. Or to put it another way is the job really worth it?

What you have just encountered is a red flag. A sign that all may not be well with the culture of the team you are potentially about to join. This probably requires further research. Many candidates may already have some awareness of the culture of the program or department they are applying to join. They may have worked in the same location already. Others will probably need to ask around, particularly of other current trainees.
One possible big indicator is whether other panel members interrupted or at least looked uncomfortable when the person who asked you an inappropriate question asked you that question.

Consider Lodging a Complaint.

As a medical trainee you can always complain about the situation. There are many avenues for doing this. Firstly, you may wish to contact the hospital directly to let them know what has happened or contact the hospital Human Resources Department.  Secondly, you may wish to contact your union or the AMA or speak with a lawyer.  Finally, you can contact the Australian Human Rights Commission. If you are offered the job and decided to turn it down.  You might wish to indicate that the interview process was part of your reason for declining.

Thank You

We would like to thank the many doctors who responded to our request for stories on social media. We are sorry that we cannot print all of them.

I wasn’t asked this in the interview. But one of my referees was asked if it was true that I had a child

I had my 35 week pregnant tummy patted by the interviewer

Interviewer: β€˜What do we have here?…How do you plan to feed the child?…Who is going to look after the child?’

I did not get any questions relating to my job

Dr Anthony Llewellyn

Anthony Llewellyn

FRANZCP, MHA, GAICD | Medical HR Expert and Coach. Anthony is an experienced health public sector executive, medical educationalist and coach. Anthony is an expert in Medical HR. He has reviewed numerous CVs, chaired and conducted over a thousand job interviews and provided advice to a number of employers and Colleges about selection processes. Anthony’s background: Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Manager with 20 years’ experience as a medical practitioner in public health services in a range of roles. From 2012 to 2016, Anthony was the Medical Director of the Health Education & Training Institute (HETI), involved in overseeing a number of network training programs. He is also a Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle’s School of Medicine & Public Health, and Year 5 Psychiatry Coordinator. He is currently completing a PhD in Medical Education, exploring personal learning environments in the intern training space. Anthony recently delivered for the Royal Australasian College of Physicians a Best Practice Guide for Trainee Selection into Employment Roles Anthony was born on Mouheneenner land in Hobart (Tasmania) and pays respect to the traditional owners of lands he lives and works on, and elders past and present. His most important role in life is proud father of two boys.

Dr Amandeep Hansra

Amandeep Hansra

Digital Health Leader | Evermed Consulting
Dr Amandeep Hansra is a locally trained specialist General Practitioner who has worked both nationally and overseas and continues to work in clinical medicine at a General Practice in Bondi, Sydney.  She has a passion for startups and supporting women in Medicine and was awarded β€œWomen Leading in Business Scholarship” for the Global Executive MBA at the University of Sydney.

Her past career has included both public, volunteer and private work, as well as in Aboriginal Health, Refugee Health, Occupational Medicine and Travel Medicine. She is a Fellow of the RACGP, an examiner for the College, holds a Master’s in Public Health and Tropical Medicine, the Australia Certificate in Civil Aviation Medicine, mentors junior doctors through the AMA and has completed the Company Directors Course through AICD.

Amandeep is a leader in digital health and telehealth sevices in Australia. Amandeep co-founded Evermed Consulting and provides consulting services to insurers, start ups, health service, investors and businesses. She was most recently the CEO & Medical Director of Telstra’s telemedicine business ReadyCare; a joint venture between Telstra and Medgate, Switzerland’s leading telemedicine provider. She also served as the Chief Medical Officer for Telstra Health and separately has assisted Medgate in setting up a telemedicine business in the Philippines where she remains the Chair of the Clinical Advisory Board.


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