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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: “What 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 “no 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…..
Let's just get this bit right out of the way first. There are a number of areas that according to Australian law are “out 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
So, questions like:
“Do you plan to have children?” and “Do 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: “Are you single?”
Interviewer: “Would you like a hand finding a nice local boy to settle down with?”
(I politely declined)
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: “What 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: “Yeah and what else?”
Interviewing for GP training. The Director of Training during a teleconference meeting, planning my training
DOT: “Older trainees find it hard to settle down into training”
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 “wised 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 “tell us a bit about yourself?” question, which can then often lead into more personal topics such as “what 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 “fish” for information or as a chance to ask a “follow-up” question of individual candidates.
One question we hate particularly, for a whole host of reasons is: “How 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 “good 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.
The first piece of advice we would give is “know 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 “what'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.
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 “dickhead 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!
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.
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.
Another question that can commonly be used to discriminate against candidates is: “Do 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 “No. 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.
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.
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.
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: ‘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