How To Respond To ‘Illegal’ Questions In Medical Job Interviews

You’re sitting across from an interview panel for a new position in a new town. Before the interview starts, you’re making small talk with the interviewers, and casually, one of them asks: “So, do you have any kids?”. Although this may seem like a harmless question, it is loaded with a number of potential issues that you need to consider before responding.

In Australia, there are a number of pieces of legislation that apply to discrimination in employment. In summary, it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of the following:

• Sex (gender)
• Race
• Political affiliation
• Disability
• HIV Status
• Marital or Domestic Status
• Carer Responsibility
• Homosexuality
• Age
• Transgender Status


Naturally, there are some exceptions – for example those relating to indigenous employment. In a number of government roles (for example the Defence Force), age may be considered in the employment decision due to practical considerations. These exceptions are backed by legislation, and employers may not take it upon themselves to ‘create’ an exception for their own recruitment process.

A very common request in our business is to recruit a particular gender general practitioner for a GP practice. The practice may have too many male or too many female GPs (usually the former), and wishes to recruit solely for a GP of a particular gender. While this may be convenient for the practice, or even in the perceived best interests of their business, it is not permissible.

Even in the highly educated world of healthcare, discrimination is very common throughout the entire recruitment process. Often, it may be due to an ignorance of the rules, a lack of training, or a blatant disregard for the law.

The most common practices that we experience or hear about are often related to gender, race, age, religion, and carer responsibility. It’s not to say that discrimination does not happen in the other areas, just that these appear to be the most common. Questions in interviews might come in the form of:

-“Do you need to leave work early to pick up kids?”
-“When are you planning to retire?”
-“I notice you have a head covering – do you wear that to work?”
-“Are you planning a family?”
-“I see you’re an Australian Citizen. Where are you from originally?”


In an interview environment, it can be very difficult to assess whether the question is an innocent attempt at conversation, or whether there are more sinister intentions. Going back to the first example: “So, do you have any kids?”, context can guide your response here. The interviewer may have just told you about their 5 kids, and they want to tell you about all of the wonderful schools and sporting facilities in that town. Or, they could be working out whether you will ask for flexible hours, or perhaps planning parental leave in the coming years.

You need to make a decision at this point about how you answer. You always have a choice. Your options are the following:


(a) Answer the question honestly

For example: “Yes, I’ve got three kids. What is the town like for kids under 10?”


(b) Avoid the question

For example: “I know we’re short on time today, shall we get started?”


(c) Address potential discrimination

For example: “I am not comfortable with personal questions in an interview, but I am happy to answer any questions about my experience and background”, or “I am concerned that that question is not relevant to the application”.


In the end, it’s a judgement call on your part how you respond, but where an interview takes a very negative turn, you should terminate it immediately. Why would you want to work for an employer like that anyway? There is also scope to report the practice to higher management or to the Australian Human Rights Commission. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a permanent medical position, or a locum job – the same rules apply.

There is absolutely no place for discrimination in healthcare in Australia. We have an amazingly diverse workforce, and positive employment practices encourage furthering that diversity.


Big Fat Disclaimer:

I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. This is recruitment advice. Take it as you will.

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