"What colour is your spouse?" and other questionable recruitment moves

Legal job interview questions

We had one candidate tell us of a job interview in which he was asked, “What colour is your wife?” He assumed that this was because he was a black man, and his family name is White. Whatever the reason, it’s not an appropriate question to ask a potential hire.

Employers who are recruiting need to be careful that they don’t inadvertently violate the law by advertising in a way that directly or indirectly discriminates against job applicants. Creating a legally sound job posting means ensuring that the job requirements list qualifications that relate directly to a person’s ability to do the job, says Malcolm MacKillop, LLP.

  • Don’t ask for skills or personal information that isn’t required to do the advertised position. If a driver’s license isn’t required to do the job, that area on the application form can be left blank.
  • Clearly state the job criteria. Indicate how much weight a person has to lift in a manual job. Saying an ‘able bodied person is required’ is too vague.
  • Gender neutral terms should be used to describe a position. If you need service staff, don’t say ‘waitress wanted’.

You may write a fair and non-discriminating job description but if your application form asks for the wrong information you may be open to allegations of human rights violations.

  • Race and colour – no questions are allowed what so ever, or about the color of eyes, hair or their weight (or the colour of the candidate’s spouse).
  • No photo is allowed to be requested or used in the selection process. If a photo is sent, contact the candidate and ask them to resubmit an application without a photo.
  • Gender – not allowed to be asked. If a candidate offers Mr. or Ms or Mrs. on a resume or application because they have a unisex name or one that is unrecognizable in Canadian culture, that is their decision to do so and therefore acceptable.
  • Age – depending on the province, you can ask if the person is of legal working age or if they are older than 65. Do not ask for dates or specifics of the birth.
  • National or ethnic/ancestry or place of origin – no questions are allowed, but you can ask if an applicant is eligible to work in Canada.
  • Social insurance number – once an offer has been made the SIN can be asked for, not before. The numbers on a SIN card distinguish a person’s place of origin and citizenship status.
  • Marital status – you ask if the applicant is available for travel, late night and weekend work but not if they are married or have children.
  • Religion – don’t ask, and don’t give out anything in interviews.
  • Physical or mental disability, drug addiction – some provinces allow you to ask whether there is anything that would affect the applicant’s ability to perform the job. This question should be followed by an inquiry about what accommodation or change will be needed to allow the applicant to do the job.
  • Sexual orientation – no questions on the application form or in the job interview.
  • Criminal convictions – if the job requires the person to be bonded then it is ok to ask whether the applicant has ever been convicted or a criminal offence for which a pardon has not been granted, not is they have ever been arrested.
  • Education – you can ask for the last grade level completed or diploma received but not the name and location of the schools.
  • Employment history – totally fair game.

As an applicant you don’t have to fill out these areas of an application form, but even with an outdated form, if you omit that line, it could be a red flag to the recruiter. As the employer, have your application forms reviewed from time to time by a specialist conversant with the legal obligations to prevent any human rights violations.

And at the job interview, don’t enquire about the racial background of the candidate’s spouse! We still don’t quite know what that employer was thinking.
Colleen Clarke, Career Specialist & Corporate Trainer



Author of Networking: How to build relationships that count and How To Get a Job and Keep It


Previous Post HR's perspective: Handling holiday gift giving at work


Next Post Five things you're doing that make you a bad boss

Scroll back to top