Monday, March 3, 2008

Avoid hidden interviewing traps

Today's BLR HR Daily Advisor is entitled, "Help, They Made Me a Supervisor — 9 Disastrous Mistakes New Supervisors Make.":
Pity the new supervisor. Sometimes they do the wrong thing, because they think they have to do something, and sometimes they do nothing when it's critical to do something. We'll cover nine typical types of trouble they get into today.
1. Hiring
Hiring gets to be second nature after a while, but it's a tricky matter at first. Overeager new supervisors think they should find out all they can about the candidate, but don't realize that many questions are off limits—questions about race, religion, disability, and marital and family status, among others.
The fact is that many interview questions may seem innocuous enough, but may create serious discrimination problems. The following is just a sample of some exemplar questions that are problematic, as compared to legitimate questions to extract lawful information:
  • When did you graduate high school?
  • How old are you?
  • How many years until you plan to retire?
  • How many years seniority did you have at your prior company?
  • Can you submit a birth certificate or other proof of age if you are hired?
  • Are you over 18? [work eligibility]
National Origin
  • What county are you from?
  • That is an interesting accent, where were you born?
  • Where were you or your parents born?
  • Are you eligible to work in the United States? [work eligibility]
Criminal Records
  • Have you ever been arrested? [race]
  • What is your medical history?
  • Do you have any medical conditions or disabilities?
  • How will they affect your job performance?
  • Have you ever filed a workers' comp claim?
  • Do you have a history or alcohol or drug addiction?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • Do you know of anything that would limit your ability to perform the essential functions of this job, and if so, what accommodations can we make that would enable you to perform those functions?
  • How would you perform this particular job task?
The following are some additional considerations stereotypes to keep in mind when interviewing members of protected classes:
  • Ask questions that are relevant to the job itself. For example, do not ask an applicant for her opinions on birth control, abortion, women's lib, etc.

  • Be careful not to draw assumptions about women's competence based on her soft voice or feminine appearance or attire.

  • Be professional and consistent in addressing men and women. If using first names, do so for all candidates.

  • Avoid flirting, patronizing, or making sexual/ethnic jokes during the interview.

  • Avoid bringing up stereotyped prejudices: women shouldn't travel alone; they are too emotional; they aren't aggressive enough. Don't tell negative stories about former women employees.

  • Don't go to the opposite extreme by boasting about your liberation, by pointing out how fair minded you are, or by giving an instant replay of every female or minority success story you know.

  • In making a selection or recommendation, avoid making assumptions such as the following: (i) Supervisors or managers might prefer men or employees of certain ethnic/racial origins; (ii) Clients or customers might not want to deal with women or minorities; (iii) Women's work might lack credibility; (iv) The job might involve unusual working conditions that would disqualify the applicant.

  • When interviewing people with disabilities don't ask: "What happened to you?" or "How will you get to work?"

  • Do not place undue emphasis on conditions of employment (such as travel, heavy lifting, long hours, etc.) in hope of discouraging the candidate and getting him or her to withdraw from the competition.

  • If asked, give accurate information about the number of women or minority employees already in the organization. If a candidate asks, and if you don't have women or minorities in your own department, then arrange for the person to meet other women or minority staff members. Do not assume that this person will necessarily want to meet other women or minority employees.

  • If you're going to discuss the town or city, mention everything and do not try to over-emphasize the town's aspects as a family place in which to live and bring up children.

  • In general, avoid references to a candidate's personal happiness (i.e., social and/or sexual). Don't assume that your town or city is not the place for a single person or for minorities.

  • Obviously, do not indicate that you’re interested in hiring a women or minority person as a statistic to improve your department’s Affirmative Action/Equal Employment Opportunity profile. It's unlawful to apply different standards based on an applicant's sex or minority status.

  • Don't ask the applicant about what kind of accommodation(s) he or she may need for the job until after the interviewer has established that the applicant is qualified for the job and is considering that person for employment. You can, however, explain what the interviewing and hiring process involves and ask all applicants whether they will need a reasonable accommodation to participate in any part of the process itself.
  • Treat the applicant like an adult; don't be patronizing.

  • If an applicant has an obvious disability or discloses that they have a disability during a job interview, you cannot ask about the nature or severity of the disability. You can discuss the job functions and whether the person can perform the functions with or without an accommodation.

  • Accommodations for interviews must be provided.
  • Citizenship requirements or preferences may be unlawful under Title VII if they have either the purpose or effect of discriminating against individuals because of their national origin.

  • Be careful how applicants with disabilities are evaluated. Do not make judgments based on communication skills of people with hearing and speech impairments.
  • Be sensitive to cultural differences: (i) Do not assume mispronunciation of English as a lack of education; (ii) Do not interpret silence as inability or unwillingness.
These lists give some guideposts to avoid liability. They are not meant to be exhaustive. The general rule of thumb is that unless you are absolutely sure that an interview question is 100% job-related, just don't ask it. Stick to the job requirements and how a candidate's work-related background fits with those requirements.
Tomorrow, we'll take a look at some general stereotypes that can unwittingly pervade the interview process and create problems for the unaware interviewer.