By Aiman Attar

A recent interview a salesperson conducted with a candidate for a job as his assistant left us speechless. Without naming and shaming, I think a review of what was asked and why it is considered inappropriate is an essential lesson for all of us.



Here are just some of the inappropriate questions asked by different real estate agents to different candidates that we interviewed in the past year:

  • How old are you?
  • What does your husband do for a living?
  • You’re newly married… When are you planning on having children?
  • It’s 5 p.m. and we need to prepare an offer for tonight, but you have to pick up your child from daycare. How do you handle the conflicting priorities?

Relevance is a factor in whether a question is illegal or not. You might think it is essential that your real estate assistant can be at your beck and call days, nights and weekends – so someone with several children might not be your preference. But you cannot ask them about their family status. Ultimately, it’s not up to you to decide that a mother with three kids isn’t suitable for a job that involves weekends. Some requirements to have your assistant available or on call outside of regular work hours might conflict with the Employment Standards Act or their personal life. But we can leave that discussion for another article.

Every province in Canada has its own human rights codes and commissions, but in the area of employment and interviews, they are all fairly consistent. We’ve compiled a list of the questions that you cannot ask, and included ways that those questions can be rephrased, where applicable.

8 questions you should never ask:

1. Don’t ask a candidate about their nationality or citizenship.

Where you were born, unless the job requires security clearance, isn’t relevant to someone’s ability to the do the job.

Do not ask:

  • Are you a Canadian citizen?
  • What’s your native language?
  • Where were you born?

You can ask:

  • Are you legally authorized to work in Canada?
  • What language(s) do you read/speak/write? Note: you can only ask this if it is directly relevant to the job. For example, the ability speak in French might be a requirement of the job because of the client base you’re dealing with. That would make it relevant.
2. Don’t ask a candidate how old they are.

Ageism is real and often it’s more of an unconscious bias that comes into play. As a result, many candidates will go to some length to dissimulate their actual age, for example, by removing dates from the education portion of their CV.

Do not ask:

  • When did you graduate from college or university?
  • What’s your date of birth?

You can ask:

  • Are you over the age of 18?
3. Don’t ask a candidate about their family status.

As mentioned above, asking a candidate whether or not they are married, whether they have children or plan to get married and/or have children is not relevant. It also can’t be a backhanded way to find out if they are a member of the LGBTQ community.

Do not ask:

  • What kind of child-care arrangements do you have set up?
  • How many kids do you have? And if none, do you plan to have some in the near future?
  • Are you married?
  • Whom do you live with?

You can ask:

  • Can you work overtime, evenings and weekends? You have to ask this of every candidate who applies for the position you are interviewing for.
  • There will be travel required for this position, about 10 per cent of the time. Are you willing to do this? Again, you must ask this of every candidate.
  • There’s a possibility that we might relocate the office to the next town. Would this still work for you?
4. Don’t ask a candidate any personal physical questions.

There are some jobs where a person’s height or weight are factors in whether or not they can perform their duties, but not many. For a real estate office, there is no legal basis for asking personal questions like that.

You can ask:

  • “Can you lift 40 lbs. and carry it 100 metres and load it into a truck?” This is the kind of personal question you can ask, if it’s relevant to the job duties AND you ask it of all the candidates.
5. Don’t ask a candidate about their race.

There is no “you CAN ask” for this one because there is no plausible reason to ask anyone, at any time, what race they are. Ever. Not even to satiate your curiosity… not during an interview.

6. Don’t ask a candidate about disabilities.

Unless it’s directly relevant to the tasks, you cannot ask about any disabilities that a candidate might have. From ADHD to being confined to a wheelchair, visible or not, these disabilities are not relevant for most roles.

Do not ask:

  • Have you had any operations in the last X number of years?
  • How often do you get a physical with a primary care physician?
  • Are there congenital illnesses that run in your family?
  • How did you end up in a wheelchair?

You can ask:

  • Here are the job tasks you will be required to do. Can you do them? While a person may need accommodations in order to do the job, the fact of whether or not it’s possible for them is all you need to know. You can deal with the question of what, if any, accommodations they will need AFTER you offer them the job.
7. Don’t ask a candidate about their religion or affiliations, political or social.

There are two things you shouldn’t talk about at dinner parties: politics and religion. Keep to that rule in interviews too! While you might not like someone’s political views or not agree with their religion’s strictures, it has nothing to do with their ability to do the job you are interviewing for.

Do not ask:

  • Are you a member of a political party?
  • Does your religion have holidays that will conflict with our standard office “close dates” schedule?

You can ask:

  • You will need to work on certain Sundays throughout the year. Are you available to do that? As with other questions like this, you must ask it of all candidates.
8. Don’t ask a candidate about their criminal record.

This is one that many people don’t understand, but a person’s arrest/criminal record isn’t necessarily relevant to their job. Asking them generally about whether or not they have ever been arrested and/or convicted of a crime is too broad. Jobs that require dealing with certain groups (like children) typically require a police check, so that will help you deal with this issue in those cases.

You can ask:

  • Have you ever been convicted of XYZ crime? The question must be specific and must be relevant to the job. For example, if you’re hiring a back-office person, you cannot ask them if they’ve ever been convicted of drunk driving. It’s not relevant to the job at hand. You could ask if they’ve ever been convicted of embezzling, but that’s a stretch with most applicants!

Having long experience in what sorts of questions are acceptable, or legal, and what aren’t is a great reason to leverage the services of a recruiter. Worried about what to ask and not ask? No sweat! Ask us for our free interview questions at [email protected].

The former owner of Imaginahome Inc. and former Realtor at Re/Max, Aiman Attar is the managing partner of AGENTC: The Real Estate Recruiter. She has worked in the real estate industry for over 10 years with Toronto’s finest, most accomplished Realtors. She decided to dedicate her talent and experience to helping you hire the best candidates to build your business. Email Aiman.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Brian, replying here only because you noted you are about to self-publish your book. Of course I will buy one, even so it’s not a topic I would buy off a store shelf and only as a courtesy to you…

    After engaging the services of a Kindle Amazon affiliate in Virginia between Christmas and New Year, he was paid to turn my Word document recipe compilation into a Kindle eBook. The speedy process he advertised turned out not to be so speedy; January. February, March passed with innumerable small mistakes that each took sometimes weeks to fix.

    Of course I didn’t think to ask if his production team (didn’t know he had one) was “off-shore,” where it became evident that the team’s first language wasn’t likely English, making it difficult for directions to be interpreted.

    Turn-around time each time was 3-5 business days, but some took weeks. And they don’t work weekends. A fix would happen, simultaneously creating more mistakes; difficult to understand, thinking it was a matter of copying my initial material into his Kindle “formatting” system. Not so simple or accurate I discovered. Three months passed. Ten days into the fourth month, finally the Kindle was live.

    WHOOPS! Then the next circus began. Likely many readers have experienced connecting with a support system using offshore support systems, even banking.

    As a business courtesy to a REM colleague I ordered Ross’ book. In order to buy a book at Amazon, one has to open an Amazon shopping account. No problem. I had never bought anything online. Of course in order to accommodate the purchase I succumbed and opened an Amazon account.

    As often happens we just don’t know particular questions to ask. We don’t know what we don’t know until we find out we don’t know it.

    I say this in reference to help anyone who is thinking of publishing a Kindle: of course it never dawned on me to say when buying Ross’ book that I was thinking of publishing my own book, through a special ebook publisher. a cookbook, on Kindle, and Amazon certainly never asked of course. Quite a learning experience.

    I bought and paid for his book purchase and went merrily on my way to read it. Ross asked if I would write a review. I agreed and spent quite a bit of time making sure I got it organized nicely. Typed it out and submitted to Amazon. ERROR CODE: “Your review cannot be accepted because you haven’t spent in excess of $50 USd in the past (I forget) 6 or 12 months.

    That message should be at the end of the book where Amazon link is provided, asking the reader to send a review. Not noted after one spends time preparing a book review. How clever is that (not).

    But on to the next whirligig with Amazon: during the past week, since “Gourmet Cooking – at Home with Carolyne” went live on line, netting more Amazon discoveries that no one alerts to… My cookbook had finally gotten published. Ross noted that since he doesn’t cook he has no need for a cookbook, so he wouldn’t be buying my book, but he posted the link kindly at his FB friends.

    How many of you have more than one phone number, and more than one email address? The Kindle ebook publisher had all my personal information, and loaded the book to Kindle, using “his” Amazon-affiliate account. Fine.

    So I wanted to see my cookbook stats; how many orders, etcetera, reports. I signed in at Amazon using my only telephone number and the email address I had used with the Virginia ebook publisher.

    WHOOPS! Cannot accept your login. The telephone number and email address are already in use on another account. REALLY??? (Amazon has TWO separate company systems: one for retail that you use to make purchases, as I had set up in order to buy Ross’ book, and one for people publishing a Kindle, either self-publishing or through an Amazon approved affiliate publisher…)
    WHO KNEW? certainly not me.

    In order to login into my Kindle ebook records, I spoke with no less than two dozen Amazon support people, each one purporting to have straightened out the issues: several in South Africa, several in India, more in the Philippines, in Seattle, in Phoenix, in Virginia, one in Kentucky, and then in Jamaica. Four hours at a stretch many days.

    All this to publish a Kindle published ebook. In man-hours thousands of dollars in real “time” costs.

    Fortunately I am very patient, kind, and understanding, but I was getting to the end of the rope.

    So I am naturally hoping people will spend the 5.99 and at least buy a gift for someone.

    But if you are considering self-publishing an Amazon Kindle ebook, please know there is so much more to it than meets the eye. People don’t talk about these things. Unless you already have such skills in your repertoire, be certain to hire the right help the first time around. But on what basis is such a judgement made?

    Carolyne

    https://www.amazon.com/Gourmet-Cooking-At-Home-Carolyne-ebook/dp/B07QKGLRZP/ref=sr_1_fkmrnull_1?keywords=Gourmet+Cooking+-+At+Home+with+Carolyne&qid=1554981299&s=gateway&sr=8-1-fkmrnull

    • Hi Luiz:

      I am assuming that you are referring to my post due to your “book” reference as no one else has thus far mentioned a book within these posts. Therefore, thank you for your endorsement of my position on this topic, and thank you for asking about the book.

      If picked up by a publisher a book can take up to a year to become available on the shelves. The Amazon E-book route is much quicker, which is the method that I will pursue if I almost surely get turned down by publishing houses due to my being a first-time author. J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame was a first-timer who was tuned down by six publishers before being picked up by a small publishing house in London, England. Another first-time writer was turned down by twenty-four different publishers in a row before being picked up, and his book netted him (not to mention, the publisher) many millions of dollars within one year of hitting the book stands. Therefor, I (being just another first-time no-name nobody existing on the periphery of the literary world’s inner sanctum) fully expect to be turned away by every publisher, so, I will not waste my time with any of them beyond approaching one only, and thence upon likely being rejected I will go the E-book route. I hope to have the book available for potential readers via Amazon by the end of this summer. It looks like I might have at least one interested reader lined up. Thanks Luiz!

  2. Hello last time I looked companies are in the business to make money when you train someone for a job and have all the sudden someone not wanting to work overtime or wanting a year off to have a baby or constantly wanting time to attend there children’s sport events..holidays.. attending school functions picking up kids from school and you are a small company this can cause a lot of problems with short staff. In my companies if a candidate during an interview isn’t prepared to discuss their personal life, Chief men’s, likes and dislikes, expectations, personal wants needs and dreams then I don’t hire them. Because I conduct a thorough interview in 47 years I have never fired one person.

  3. Aiman: I agree with you on principle on ALL of them. Although, some of the ‘natural’ (seemingly ‘innocent’) questions are really leading questions – leading to discriminatory hiring practices. Here’s an example of how hurtful it can become when a person hears the same discriminatory words; A British Columbia young woman has heard many times: “Where are you from?”. She replies:” I was born here. My forefathers came have been here for four thousand years”. A niece of mine (in California) has answered many times: “Actually, I came from my mother’s womb. Where did you come from”?. Most would say, discrimination only exists in the ‘other lands’. Women are still THE MOST adversely discriminated race on earth. And of course, most jobs women do are below the quality of “______”, so, they should be paid less – if at all hired! I commend you for bringing this topic up.

  4. No Talk ~~ No Hire! What do they have to be ashamed of?? A potential Employer could ask me just about anything! Grow up~ Get a Life and a job with compatible people!

    • Douglas, it isn’t about being ashamed. Employers use information to discriminate. For example, a candidate was asked about how old her child was, and whether or not she had childcare and a backup plan. I get it… the employer is worried about hiring someone who is going to have competing responsibilities. Many women with kids or newlywed won’t get hired, not because they lack the skills, commitment or hard work, but simply because the employer will use that personal information to rank her as a high risk hire.

  5. Thank you for the article. I am surprised that , by the sounds of it, this has to be said . I would have thought that anybody hiring is aware of the “do’s and don’ts” (sp) in hiring procedures and regulations. The only thing that threw me a bit was “8”. I had to provide a criminal record check in order to get my real estate license so my guess is (please correct me if I am wrong) that the hiring process should involve a criminal record check to take care of this issue.

    • Hi Sabine, thank your for your comment. If a candidate will have access to properties, lockbox codes and credit card information then it is highly recommended that a criminal record check is done. But for a front desk position or receptionist etc, it may not be necessary.

  6. I completely disagree with this article. As a Landlord, I want to know many of these questions. How is hiring someone any different? There is going to be a relationship between two parties. If your going to start dating someone, do you not want to know about their current situation? A bit about their family?

    • Believe it or not Doug, legally we are not allowed to ask these questions. I agree with you. If someone is going to work for me, it would be nice to know more about them or their family/responsibility dynamics but legally this is considered a type of discrimination.

      I always recommend a few interviews / casual conversations, most people openly share their life story — but you can’t outright ask these questions.

  7. Aiman:

    What are the legal liabilities that an employer faces if he/she ‘does’ ask one or more of these “you can’t ask these questions of a potential hire during the interview process” questions?

    Would a potential hire who was not hired be able to successfully sue an outfit that ‘did’ ask a forbidden interview question basing the suit on that question being asked…and answered, or not answered?

    Re question 1: If you are not a Canadian citizen you have no rights as a citizen. Any attempt to deflect from a citizenship question by a non-citizen would be a misrepresentation of the facts. That would be ample reason to end the interview. The next seven would be of no consequence.

    Interesting isn’t it that people looking for jobs are schooled to find out everything under the sun about any potential employer but employers cannot find out everything under the sun about potential hires. Double standard anyone?

    Businesses that hire are in business to make money; they are not social service agencies.

    No wonder companies that have long relied upon humans are employing robots whenever possible to get their jobs done efficiently…without the headaches, hassles and expense of lawsuits when firings do occur.

    It’s all about finding a hire that meshes with one’s business culture. Therefore one needs to know as much about a potential hire as possible. Asking pertinent questions seems to be the only way to do that.

    Study NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) to determine if interviewees are lying. If deemed so, fire them right from the interview.

    • Brian, I agree.

      There are many laws in favour of the employee or candidate that i don’t necessarily agree with on a personal or professional level. The point of this article is to protect the employers. Yes… lawsuits happen. Do they hold weight or do they ever win is another story.

      The point is our hands are tied to some degree by the government rules, and I certainly can’t ask these questions to candidates.

      My job, and the government believes the employer’s job, is to only assess if the person possesses the necessary skills and abilities to do the job.

      But culture fit is really important.

      On the flip side, as a recruiter, I also witness a lot of “off the record” discrimination where employers don’t want newlywed women to join their team or new moms because they expect that their family life will interfere with their commitment to work. Newlywed men don’t face the same discrimination.

      I have also witnessed ethnic discrimination where the client will say the candiidate doesn’t fit with my client demographics.

      These things happen.

      Thanks for reading the article and providing your feedback.

      • Aiman:

        Following is the root of the problem of which you speak, and it is an age old one when democracies, which have reached the apex of their success oriented journey, inevitably devolve toward socialism…because they can afford to because of the theretofore well-earned economic success:

        Rules and regulations that apply to the hiring/firing process within the private sector are created by bureaucrats from the public sector. Said bureaucrats are unaccountable and unaffected by their pronouncements from on high. Most have never worked in the private sector. The negative costs to the economy at large have no bearing on their utopian theories of fairness. They are effectively insulated from the real world as they sit behind their taxpayer-funded government desks telling private initiative entrepreneurs how to run their businesses…under threat of penalty should they be found guilty of a crime as severe as not hiring someone based upon the guilty employer’s assessment of an individual candidate’s inability to carry out the functions of the job the way the employer wants them carried out: how, when, where and why. We have apples telling oranges how to make apple juice, so to speak.

        Most bureaucrats are socialists; that is why they shy away from private sector jobs and go for the cushy, overprotected, public-service-union protected careers wherein it is almost impossible to be fired for anything except voting for a Conservative candidate in any election, be it local, provincial or federal.

        It is easy for bureaucrats-with-too-much-power to tell others—the great unwashed—how to manage ‘their’ working relationships when the ‘crats from on high are untouchable. Maybe it’s time for employers to take a stand en masse, organize country-wide, and start hiring whomever the hell they want for whatever reasons they deem to be in the best interests of their businesses, and not in the best interests of the candidates of whom they know nothing. Candidates, after all, get to pick and choose which companies they want to apply to. If candidates don’t like a certain outfit’s hiring practices, why would they want to work there in the first place?

        It’s time to get government out of the private sector, but that will never happen; we have an entrenched socialist cradle-to-grave mindset in effect now, thanks to the educational bureaucrats who have made sure that most all high school and university graduates are cookie-cutter herd-following products of socialist indoctrination theories. I once had a conversation with a government bureaucrat about the affirmative action hiring policies rampant within the civil service. I asked about the importance of merit, of hiring the best person for the job. I was told that the civil service was not concerned with merit ‘or’ efficiency (unbelievable), only that the population of its workers reflect exactly the percentage of Women, Men, Whites, Blacks, Browns, Asians, Natives etc, within the general population at large. Now you know how poorly spent your tax dollars truly are. Now you know why the civil service government agencies are so in-your-face unaccountable to the taxpayers, the very people who actually provide ‘them’ with ‘their’ cushy, often over-paid jobs-for-life.

        Life ain’t fair people. Life offers up no guarantees…except and end to it. Get over it. Get out there and do your best with what you’ve got. If you don’t get hired because you think you were discriminated against, move on; it wasn’t for you anyway. Don’t waste your time litigating…unless you are a professional suing agent looking to take advantage of some bureaucrat’s goofy hiring rule.

        I am writing a novel (hopefully to be published within a year from now) and I talk about this very subject therein through a very powerful mainline character. We shall see if the leftist political correctness police try to ban it. If a publishing house does not pick it up, I will self-publish via Amazon E-books.

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