Career Advice Expert Advice

Private practice

How much do interviewers really need to know?

“That’s great, so we’ll let you know by the end of the week whether you’ve got the job or not. By the way, what’s your blood type and does your emergency contact own a car?”

If you’ve ever been asked what seems like a totally unrelated question in a job interview, chances are you’re a victim of excessive data collection. This is something that jobseeker Fiona Shum noticed on several occasions during a recent job search, with recruiters regularly overstepping the boundaries of the types of question they should have been asking.

“Once I had to fill in an application form which contained questions about my Chinese and Western Zodiac signs and my blood type. It was before the interview and any job offer,” Shum says.

She describes how on another occasion, she needed to fill in an application form before an interview which contained questions on who to contact in case of emergency, and whether that person had a car or owned property. The information was completely irrelevant to the job for which she was applying.

“Interviewers have also asked me about my marital status and the financial status of my parents,” she says.

Headhunters, meanwhile, have asked for her date of birth and a photocopy of her ID card. She says she is slightly apprehensive about such questions as it can lead to discrimination.

“In one interview I was having a good chat with the interviewer and I disclosed that I was a single mother. After that, the discussion abruptly stopped,” she says.

According to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data (PCPD), other examples of data collection that go beyond normal job relevance include asking applicants about their height and weight, medical records, religion, and family members. Some companies even ask for an interviewee’s bank account number before they have made a decision to hire them.

“The Code of Human Resource Management requires that an employer should not collect personal data from job applicants unless the data is adequate, but not excessive, in relation to the purpose of recruitment,” says Allen Ting, chief personal data officer (compliance) at the PCPD. In the initial stages of recruitment, he says, data on the applicant’s name, contact details, academic qualifications, work experience, skills and professional qualifications should suffice.

According to Angel Lam, manager of Robert Walters’ commerce finance division, it is not even necessary to bring in original copies of school certificates and reference letters to a first interview.

She says that jobseekers are often placed in a vulnerable position when applying for a job, especially if it is obvious that they are in desperate need of employment. This means that when it comes to filling in over-inquisitive application forms, or being asked prying questions about personal subjects, it can be very difficult for an interviewee to know how to answer.

“More detailed questions should come up at a later stage and not when filling in the application form,” Lam says. “Candidates need to judge whether certain questions are relevant on a case-by-case basis. If you feel uncomfortable with some of the questions, being asked, and think that they are not relevant to the job, share your thoughts.”

She advises applicants to suggest a discussion on such topics at a later stage, or to ask how these topics are related to the job, before giving an answer.

“Stay courteous and don’t get combative. Explain your reasons in a rational and friendly manner. Don’t get offended and offensive. You can say, ‘Maybe we can discuss this later as we are still at an early stage and I don’t think this is relevant at the moment,’” she says.

In Lam’s experience, human resources (HR) managers know the proper codes of practice and will understand an applicant’s reluctance to answer overly inquisitive questions.

“HR usually feels that the more information they collect in one go, the faster and easier it will be later. Generally it is a time and cost factor, and usually there is nothing very sinister behind collecting the extra information,” she says.

Data from the PCPD supports Lam’s experiences. Between 2010 and 2012, the office investigated 83 complaints, with only 12 per cent resulting in a verdict of misuse of personal data. This still shows, however, that misuse does happen. Ting says that examples include using the data for direct marketing, selling it to third parties, and using it for statistics without deleting personally identifying particulars.

Justin Davidson, partner at Norton Rose Hong Kong, says that personal data from job applicants is inherently confidential and misuse could lead to more serious problems further down the line. “Extensive data about any individual makes that person more susceptible to fraud such as identity theft,” he says.

He adds that if applicants feel an interviewer unfairly obtained excessive data, they can issue a complaint to the Privacy Commissioner, who may investigate the matter.

“They can request to have access to all personal data collected by the employer and, after the vacancy has been filled, the unsuccessful applicant has the general right to request that their data be destroyed,” he says.

In the past 10 years, the PCPD has done much to better regulate the recruitment market. For example, from 2004 to 2005, the office investigated 48 “blind advertisements” – advertisements that do not disclose the name of the advertiser – which received complaints, while in the past three years only one such complaint has been registered.

Lam says the reason why a company places a blind advertisement is usually because they don’t want people to know that they are advertising a position which is currently filled. Alternatively the company might have future expansion or re-organisation plans that are confidential.

“Blind ads represent a critical scenario which a jobseeker can encounter. I advise applicants to be careful and perform some due diligence before applying, in case it is their current employer,” she says.

When replying to a job advertisement:

•    Make sure you know who the advertiser is. Do not send personal details to “blind” advertisements with no company names.
•    Understand why a company is collecting data – check if the advertisement has a personal information collection statement.
•    Do not provide excessive personal data. For a first interview, providing a name, contact details, ID card number (but not photocopy) and information on academic and professional qualifications, work experience, and skills should be sufficient.
•    Be particularly careful not to provide financial data, such as bank account or credit card numbers, before securing a job.