Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Social networking and job search 35 – job discrimination in perception and fact

Posted in job search and career development by Timothy Platt on January 25, 2010

This is a complex set of topics and it is one that prompts a strong emotional response for many, and with good reason. Job discrimination does happen, and even more commonly than that, appearance of job discrimination happens. I am going to focus on this from the context of job search here, and will follow up with a posting on job discrimination for those already hired and on the job. I add that this, perhaps more than most postings in this series presents my own personal perspective, and is based on my own experiences and on events I have seen. I know that a great many people can claim to have never had any problems or experiences in this arena and I also know that many have seen and experienced far worse. This is an insidious problem where it occurs and it can poison the environment for everyone at a workplace where it happens.

Job discrimination is illegal. Job discrimination is also in the eye of the beholder, and it is expressed as actions that convey a message of harassment, intimidation, coercion or blocked opportunity based on criteria not related to job performance or ability. Usually, at least to my understanding, this has to be connected to bias against specific groups and their members based on issues like race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age and the like. I have seen this, for example where people looking for job candidates in web development and related specifically and overtly screen out potential candidates on the basis of age with an arbitrary cut-off for maximum age allowed and regardless of skills or experience. I have also seen this expressed, sticking to age as a discrimination criterion example, as candidates “having too much experience.”

Discrimination based on age and other factors does happen and probably especially in a tight job market where the unemployment rate is way up and many, many candidates vie for any and every position. I will add that discrimination that meets a legal threshold of definition can be very hard to prove, and certainly for the individual job candidate, and can generally only be shown where there is a clear hiring pattern with time. The New York City Fire Department has recently been ordered to hire more minority firefighters for example as a result of court cases that hinged on statistics where the percentage of Blacks and Hispanics in the overall population has consistently far exceeded the percentage of Blacks and Hispanics in the Department.

Discrimination that does not recur in patterns that can show to the level of demographics is much harder to prove but it does happen.

Having said that in setting a background for discussion, I want to shift gears to address:

• Interview questions and the potential in them for creating a perception of discrimination.
• Legal and illegal interview questions.
• How and why illegal interview questions get asked.
• How to deal with them.

When a candidate goes to interview at a business or other organization, the hiring manager and others they would meet with are seeking to learn more about who they are and what they would bring to the job. This includes professional experience and skills, and it also includes interpersonal skills and compatibility with company culture and the teams of employees already there. Candidates are at the same time interviewing the people they meet at this business to find out if this is a place they would comfortably work at. The key point is that people on both sides of the table are coming into these meetings with more questions than answers, and perception can mean everything. This is about what is said, but it is also about how it is said, and both for questions asked and answers given.

The focus as to whether there is hiring discrimination is generally in the questions asked of the job candidate, and there is a range of specific areas that US Federal law, and most US state legal systems find discriminatory. A common list for these forbidden question areas would include:

• Race.
• Sex.
• Color.
• Religion.
• National origin.
• Birthplace.
• Age.
• Disability.
• Marital or family status.

So for example it is illegal to ask a candidate if they are planning on having more children or if they are a US citizen under United States law. Picking up on the later point and citizenship it is, however, legal to ask if a candidate is authorized to work in this country where that involves both citizenship and potential immigration papers issues. The key here is that this later question does connect directly to employability and to ability to perform the job to be hired for. Simply asking for citizenship information per se does not address that issue and the answer to that question is not necessarily job related.

If there are fairly specific questions that are illegal to ask a job candidate in an interview, why are they asked? The basic, simple answer in most cases is ignorance. Most people who have to interview job candidates do so without any training or guidelines as to how to do this effectively or even legally. And the crucial word here as to what specifically triggers an illegal question is silence.

From a candidate’s perspective, it is a good idea to listen and to ask questions. Every second of potential silence should not be filled with your words and if you tend to talk when nervous keep that in mind. Smile, listen, ask questions and do not come across as rushing the interviewer. From an interviewer’s perspective, silence can be good for you too. It can be helpful for both parties to keep things relaxed and unrushed, and you do not have to and should not try to fill any potential gap with that next question. People ask illegal questions primarily because they do not know what to ask next and feel they just have to ask something – anything to keep things moving. That is a bad idea but it does happen and these questions do get asked.

So as a candidate what should you do when asked a question you feel is intrusive and that you see as illegal? I can only give guidelines and suggestions here but I would start by suggesting that you consider context. If the interview is going cordially, and you think the question was being asked with innocent intent, it would probably not make sense to start out viewing at it as intended discrimination.

• You can look to what you perceive to be the intent of the question and address that in your answer.
• You can simply answer the question and move on.
• You can ask for clarification as to what the interviewer is seeking to learn, couching your question in terms of this job you are interviewing for.
• You can even simply choose to ignore the question and switch topics.
• These are only some of the responses you can give, but whatever you chose I would recommend that you be non-confrontational.

If the context of the question is hostile or if the interviewer asks repeated illegal questions and with seeming intent the situation is very different. Then you may wish to file a claim, and in the United States you would do this through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

I have written this posting with US law in mind as to specific examples but the basic principles apply in a much wider context. It is important to know your rights and your legal options. At the same time, seeming discrimination in interviews, when expressed with awkward and even illegal questions may be more a matter of inexperience and ignorance than intent.

My next posting in this series is going to pick up on this topic again to examine a few issues related to on the job discrimination.

3 Responses

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  1. […] Job Discrimination in Perception and Fact. • Workplace Rights and On the Job […]

  2. resume cover sheet example said, on February 16, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    Wonderful Site! I wanted to ask if I could site some of your pages and use a couple of items for a school assignment. Please drop me an email whether or not its ok or not. Thanks

    • Timothy Platt said, on February 17, 2010 at 1:35 pm

      I do not mind if you cite material from my blog and simply ask that you include the URL as a reference source when you do so.

      Thanks, Tim


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