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Tip Sheets

Human Rights and You: What Can Employers Ask?


Work search resources will tell you that the best way to prepare for an interview is to think about the questions you might be asked and practise your answers. But how do you prepare for inappropriate questions? What if an employer asks about your age, health, race, marital status or religion? How should you respond?

The best approach is to be informed. In Alberta human rights are protected under the Alberta Human Rights Act. Some employers might not be well informed about this legislation and may ask questions that are illegal under the Act. If you’re prepared for this, you won’t be caught off guard in an interview. This tip gives you some ideas for handling inappropriate questions and will help you understand what employers can and can’t ask you on a job application or in an interview.

What can employers ask?

It is acceptable for employers to ask

  • about your ability to do what the work requires, such as working night shifts, travelling or lifting heavy items
  • for any names you have used if the information is needed to complete reference checks or verify your past employment or education
  • if you are legally permitted to work in Alberta
  • if you are a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident

What questions are unacceptable?

Generally, any information that could be used to discriminate against you or restrict or deny you employment is off-limits. This chart shows the kinds of questions employers can ask (Recommended) and those they should avoid asking (Not recommended):*

Common question areas Recommended Not Recommended
Age Old enough to work legally in Alberta? Specific age of applicants who are 18 years or older, including retirement information.
Clubs or organizations Membership in professional associations, clubs or organizations, hobbies or interests, as long as they are job-related. Specific inquiries about club and organization memberships that would indicate race, colour, religious beliefs, ancestry or place of origin.
Disability Indicating the job offer is contingent upon a satisfactory job-related medical examination to determine capability to perform the duties as outlined. General disabilities, limitations, present or previous health problems, Workers’ Compensation claims or sick leave or absence due to stress or mental or physical illness.
Education Educational institutions attended; nature and level of education achieved. Inquiries about religious or racial affiliation of educational institution.
Gender, marital status, family status Availability for shift work, travel, etc. Plans for marriage, family, childcare. Any inquiries specific to gender or marital status (including common-law relationships) or family status.
Height and weight Describing job duties that require heavy lifting or other physical job requirements. Minimum/maximum height and weight requirements/stipulations.
Languages Ability to communicate in any language specifically required by a job. Other languages, when not required in a specific job.
Name Previous names, only if the information is needed to verify the applicant’s past employment or education and to do a reference check. Maiden name, “Christian” name, reference to origin of name, being related to another person by blood, marriage or adoption.
Photographs In rare situations such as modelling and entertainment. Requesting photographs (these can reveal race, gender, etc.).
Race, colour, ancestry or place or origin Legally permitted to work in Canada. Place of birth, citizenship, racial origin, next of kin.
Religious beliefs Availability for shift work, travel, etc. Inquiries about specific religious holidays observed by the applicant, customs observed, religious dress, etc.; requiring applicants to provide recommendations from a church or religious leader.
Smoking Indicating the successful applicant will be required to work in a non-smoking environment. Asthmatic or permanent respiratory conditions that may be affected by smoke.
Source of income Job-related information such as former employment. Inquiries unrelated to the specific job to be performed.

*Reproduced with permission from the Alberta Human Rights Commission Information Sheet, A recommended guide for pre-employment inquiries, February 2012

How to handle inappropriate questions

When asked an inappropriate question on an application form or in an interview, you could respond in a number of ways. You could

  • write “not applicable” on the application form or politely refuse to answer the question
  • tactfully let the employer know the question is inappropriate
  • deal with the underlying concern that has prompted the employer to ask the question. For example, an employer who inappropriately asks about your family plans or the number of children you have might incorrectly assume you are more likely to be absent because of parental leave or sick time. In this case you could address the underlying concern by talking about your excellent attendance record and your ability to do the job.

However you choose to answer, be professional and tactful.

If you think you have a complaint

If you have a human rights complaint or have a question about a specific situation, contact the Alberta Human Rights Commission by telephone or regular mail (see Additional Information).

Relevant Tips (alis.alberta.ca/tips)

Additional Reading (alis.alberta.ca/publications)

Additional Information
Contact the Alberta Human Rights Commission by mail or telephone.
Because of confidentiality concerns, the Commission cannot respond to complaints by email.

Alberta Human Rights Commission

Northern Regional Office
800 Standard Life Centre
10405 Jasper Avenue
Edmonton, Alberta T5J 4R7
Confidential Inquiry Line:
   780-427-7661
Fax: 780-427-6013
Southern Regional Office
Suite 310
525–11 Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta T2R 0C9
Confidential Inquiry Line:
   403-297-6571
Fax: 403-297-6567

To call toll-free within Alberta, dial 310-0000 and then enter the area code and phone number.

For persons who are deaf or hard of hearing
Edmonton
Calgary
Toll-free within Alberta
780-427-1597
403-297-5639
1-800-232-7215

Visit the Alberta Human Rights Commission website at www.albertahumanrights.ab.ca for further information

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