It is hard to find a safe topic of conversation with an interviewee. Most normal human interactions involve finding out about someone’s family, background and ideas – all of which can be potential material for a discrimination claim if they don’t get the job or sometimes, even if they do! So what can you talk about? Firstly, the old advice of no religion and no politics still holds good. Family and family plans are tricky, as it may involve issues around childcare and accusations of sex discrimination. And complimenting someone on their appearance? Tread carefully, or you may end up with an invitation for dinner or a sexual harassment claim – or both….Health? With the Equality Act 2010, pretty much a no go area unless you need to find out about reasonable adjustments for the interview process. In fact, most of the things we usually talk about with new acquaintances can be deadly.
Despite the awareness of discrimination law, you’d be surprised what gets asked in interviews. I’ve been asked whether my relationship or my career was more important to me and whether I was planning on starting a family in the next few years (a questions I doubt would have been posed to a male candidate). Did I bring a claim? No, I did not, because I wanted a job and was concerned that bringing a claim would, on balance, be more trouble than it was worth. But in the current difficult market, people are becoming more inclined to protest about what happens during application processes.
Of course, if it is integral to the job (e.g. an interview for an overtly religious post or political role, or a job involving very long hours or significant travel) then these issues may need to be sensitively explored. If you are going to tread into this dangerous territory, go into it with all the applicants. It looks a lot more like sex discrimination if you only ask the women about their family plans and childcare arrangements, and don’t ask the male candidates.
If you can, stick rigidly to the job requirements and ask all the applicants the same things. And if you need to put someone at their ease, try and find a neutral topic like how their journey was, or the weather. In a long interview process, lunch or dinner with the candidates can prove more trying but hopefully they will have questions about the company and your experiences working there. Hobbies are usually fairly safe ground, though it depends on what their hobbies are. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with the amateur taxidermist. Legally fine, absolutely fascinating but not really the thing for over lunch.