A Government department has been ordered to pay €7,500 in compensation to a woman who was asked discriminatory questions by Minister of State John Halligan during a job interview. 

The executive officer was interviewing for the post of private secretary to Mr Halligan in May 2016 and was one of three candidates to make it to the final stage for two positions. 

During the interview the complainant claimed Mr Halligan said: "I know I shouldn't be asking this, but are you a married woman? Do you have children? How old are your children?". 

The woman said she was taken off guard and answered the questions confirming that she was married with two children and told him their ages. 

The Minister commented that she "must be very busy".

The woman felt the questions were inherently unfair and and highly inappropriate.

She felt by revealing her children were of "relatively tender years" it would be perceived that her domestic life could impact on the attention she could give the job.

The Workplace Relations Commission concluded that the woman was put in a difficult situation in a job interview with probing questions.

These went to the heart of her married and family life which historically could not be considered gender neutral questions, it found.

Mr Halligan responded to today's judgement in the Workplace Relations Commission, saying he was simply trying to put the interviewee at ease. 

"During the course of this interview for the role of private secretary - shortly after I became Minister of State - I asked the candidate if she had children and their ages," he said.

"I did this as I wanted her to feel that I would be flexible in terms of any family business that she may have to attend to.

"Too many workplaces have less than family-friendly arrangements and I always ensure that my workplace is as family-friendly as possible.

"I wanted to assure her that I am as flexible as possible with members of my team with any external or non-work commitments they may have." - Minister of State John Halligan

"This was the first time I was conducting an interview of this sort and I did not realise that it was unacceptable to ask such a question," he said. 

He added: "The question was coming from a good place. It was in no way meant to be discriminatory in any shape.

"I was simply trying to put the interviewee at ease. I wanted to assure her that I am as flexible as possible with members of my team with any external or non-work commitments they may have."

Workplace Relations Commission Adjudication Officer Penelope McGrath said it was ill-advised of Mr Halligan to have so pointedly obtained information that had nothing to do with this candidate's suitability for a position. 

She said: "I doubt very much that this HR officer, with his clear HR experience, had he known in advance of what was going to be asked, would have sanctioned it", adding that "the Minister of State alone spoke the words and the post-incident attempt to dress it up in a 'context' does not take away from the objectively discriminatory nature of these remarks". 

Ms McGrath said the Minister himself might be deemed to have acknowledged the inappropriateness of this line of questioning when he prefaced it with the comment "I know I shouldn't ask this but...".

She said she does have some sympathy for the HR Officer who is in the difficult position of trying to keep a newly appointed Minister under some sort of advisory warning but said it is regrettable he did not intervene when the questions were asked. 

The Public Service Executive Union said it beggars belief that 40 years after the enactment of the first Employment Equality Act 1977 that anybody, let alone a Government Minister, would think that it is acceptable to ask questions based on an out-moded view of the role of a mother.

Labour's Sean Sherlock has told the Dáil it is shocking that a Minister could breach such fundamental equality laws.

He said that Minister Halligan must now consider his position because the findings against him were unambiguous.

Solidarity-PBP TD Paul Murphy said Minister Halligan's explanation was not very credible and he must address the Dáil on the matter.

While Fianna Fail's Fiona O'Loughlin said while Minister Halligan was right to apologise, the fact he asked a female applicant about whether she was married and had children is akin to what would have happened well over thirty years ago.

"It has been against the law to ask questions like this at interviews since 1998 and John should have been aware of this particularly when he was on an interview board as a Minister of state," she said.

She added: "While he may not have been trying to offend what he asked was deeply offensive," she said."