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What Can Employers Ask You?

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? What if they ask you to perform tests? How should you respond?

Your best approach is to be informed.

In Alberta, human rights are protected under the Alberta Human Rights Act [pdf]. Some employers might not be well informed about this legislation and ask questions that are illegal under the act. If you’re prepared, you won’t be caught off guard in an interview.

Protecting your human rights

The Alberta Human Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate against people or treat them unfairly because of their:

  • Race
  • Religious beliefs
  • Colour
  • Gender (including pregnancy and sexual harassment)
  • Gender expression
  • Gender identity
  • Physical disability
  • Mental disability
  • Age
  • Ancestry
  • Place of origin
  • Marital status
  • Source of income
  • Family status
  • Sexual orientation

These 15 types of discrimination are sometimes called protected grounds. The Act also protects individuals from discrimination in certain areas, such as employment.

What questions are acceptable and what questions are unacceptable?

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

Generally, however, any information that could be used to discriminate against you or restrict or deny you employment is off-limits.

See the Alberta Human Rights Commission's recommended guide for pre-employment inquiries to learn more about common questions that, if asked incorrectly, could violate the Alberta Human Rights Act

Job-related skills testing

Some jobs require physical co-ordination, strength or the ability to handle stress. An employer can test you for job-related skills during the hiring process but must give the same tests to everyone being hired for similar work. Tests must relate to the job. So, if you’re applying for a labour job, an employer can’t test your keyboarding skills. If you’re looking for office work, an employer can’t test whether you can lift a certain weight.

Drug and alcohol testing

You can be tested for drugs and alcohol after hiring if your employer can show the test is reasonable, justifiable and doesn’t violate your human rights.

Security checks and bonding

Before starting a job, you may need to complete a security check through the local police service. A security check is especially required if you’re working with children, persons with disabilities and the elderly, or if you’re handling money or confidential information. For some jobs, where it’s important to protect against fraud or theft, your employer may check if you are bondable (whether you can be insured through your employer to handle sums of money).

Collecting and using your personal information

Alberta has two acts dealing with the collection, use and the release of personal information of workers. You’re covered by the Personal Information Protection Act  (PIPA) [PDF] if you work in the private sector. You come under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) [PDF] if you work for the provincial government or for other agencies, such as school boards and hospitals.

When collecting your personal information, your employer must tell you why it’s needed and how it may be used or disclosed. Employers may only collect work-related information about you.

Although your employer will usually collect personal information directly from you, the law does allow your employer to collect information about you from others. For example, your employer may collect information about you from previous employers when checking references.

A few people at your work, such as your supervisor or those handling payroll, may have the authority to access your personal information to do their job.

Some provisions in privacy legislation do allow your employer to disclose your personal information.

If you have a union-employer collective agreement, there may be additional work-related personal information allowed to be collected, used or disclosed. Employees can contact their union representative or review their collective agreement regarding what other work-related personal information may be collected.

Visit Personal Information Protection—Overview for more information on workplace privacy in the private sector.

For more information on workplace privacy in the public sector, visit Service Alberta's FOIP—Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy.

How to handle inappropriate questions

When asked an inappropriate question on an application form or in an interview, 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.

Because of confidentiality concerns, the Commission cannot respond to complaints by email.

Contact the Commission:

  • Confidential Inquiry Line: 780-427-7661
  • Toll-free within Alberta: 310-000 and then enter the area code and phone number
  • TTY service for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing: 1-800-232-7215
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