Is College Recruiting Ageist?

When we hear about age discrimination employment lawsuits, they are typically centered on older workers being let go when a company reorganizes so that less expensive (e.g., younger) employees are retained. Of course more subtle examples of ageism are present in workplaces and we need to be as aware of them as we are of bias against women, the LGBTQ+ community, and racial minorities.

Recently, the US District Court in California allowed an age discrimination case to proceed as a class action. As summarized here, the plaintiffs claim that the company used only college recruiting to bring on entry level hires, hence discriminating against potential hires who were not in college (re: people of 40). As evidence, they present that web postings of the positions only appeared through college recruiting sites and not on their regular career site and that resumes from older workers were regularly rejected. They also argue that the company has a general culture which values younger workers over older ones. The company counters these arguments by saying their process is merit-based and that given the number of candidates who apply, using the current process makes business sense.

There are several aspects of this case which are interesting and instructive:

1) There is nothing inherently wrong with college recruiting, especially for entry level jobs. However, if this is the ONLY way a person can get into the pipeline, by definition you are primarily looking at candidates in their 20s.

2) It shows a presumption that older workers will not take entry level positions. That may be true in some situations, but it is really up to the job candidate to make that determination. If an entry level job pays well relative to the experience necessary, why wouldn’t an older worker take it?

3) Like many class action suits, the statistical data will be a key point in determining if there was adverse impact against those age 40 and older. If, as the company claims, only 3% of college candidates get hired (I can see a huge legal argument about who was an applicant and how many there were), the plaintiffs will have to show that fewer than 2.4% of older candidates (again, a fight over who were actually applicants) were hired for the positions. That seems like a pretty low bar to get over.

4) The company’s second argument that college recruiting is efficient, therefore is OK even if it does discriminate (which they argue it does not), will be a tough one to make. Civil rights laws allow neutral selection techniques to have adverse impact if they are job related, but make no exclusions based on expense. I honestly do not see how this is relevant to the complaint.

This case will take years to wind its way through the courts. However, it does provide a timely reminder to review recruiting processes and valid selection tools for adverse impact based on age and not only race and gender. College recruiting is not in and of itself ageist, but you will want to be sure that it is not the only point of entry into your company.

Should Employers Embrace the Push for GEDs?

The U.S. has a lot of people who do not get a high school diploma. This can lead to significant barriers in employment and future opportunities in college. As a result, in 2013, over 500,000 people took and passed a high school equivalency exam (GED). This was a 20% increase over 2012. The Bureau of Labor Statistics accepts a diploma and GED as being the same. But, should employers?

The idea behind the GED is that some people are unable to complete high school for a variety of reasons and by passing the test they show that they have acquired the same amount of knowledge. That may be true, but there is little high school knowledge, except perhaps some math, that employers find valuable. What is valuable is the skill of being able to navigate something for 4 years. But, you don’t have to take my word for it. This report outlines in detail that the career and economic trajectories for those with a GED more closely resemble high school dropouts without a GED than those who complete high school. From a public policy perspective, this leads me to believe that that the proponents of the test are selling snake oil.

Employers should strongly consider this in their applications. Why? Because there may be economic consequences of treating a GED and a high school diploma the same way. In working with a client to validate ways to help them reduce turnover, we looked at the retention rates by education level for entry level positions. What we found was that after 12 months, the retention rate of those with a high school diploma compared to those with a GED 80% vs 65%. After 24 months the retention rates were 68% vs 50%. At a hiring rate of about 1000 per year and a cost of hire a bit more than $5k per person, these are significant differences. After checking with some colleagues, these results are not unusual.

The overall picture shows that employers should not be treating those with GEDs like those with high school diplomas. Rather, you should validate the impact of education level against turnover or performance as evaluate it accordingly in your application, biodata, or training and experience scoring process.

Mentoring For Turnover

This is an interesting time of the year in college football in the U.S., and not just because the final games are about to be played. As head coaches who had a poor year get fired (what should constitute the criteria for firing a college football coach is a topic for another blog), schools have begun looking for their next head coach. In some, but not many, cases an assistant who reported to the fired coach will get the job. In others, a head coach from another school will be head hunted. But, the most common instance is when an assistant from another school is hired. That is as if you wanted to hire a new vice-president of your company and you felt that the best candidates were directors at other firms. Why does this happen?

Part is that the athletic directors (those responsible for hiring the new coach) feel that the failure that led to the coach getting fired belongs to the assistant coaches as well. It is hard for them to go to their stakeholders and say, “We had a really bad season, but we think that one of our assistants is a diamond in the rough.” Note that some schools will groom a successor to the head coach when there is a retirement time frame set.

Picking head coaches from other schools typically involves a bigger school (read: one with a larger budget for salaries, practice facilities, etc.) poaching a successful coach from a smaller one. Think of this as an executive doing well at a competitor with less revenue and a firm with more sales thinking that s/he is ready to move up.

The last option, hiring an assistant from another school, is an interesting one because it reflects on the culture of coaching. Head coaches are thought of well when their assistants go on to getting better jobs. Most of them feel that part of their job is to mentor their assistants so they can get a better job—either at the current university if the head coach leaves or anywhere else. Unlike in corporate America, where losing top lieutenants is seen as a sign of a toxic culture, a head coach who has assistants move on (and be successful) at other schools is perceived as having a great “coaching tree” and attracts even better talent.

This culture comes from the coaching profession being relatively small (130 schools at the top level and 124 at the next). Even with 7 to 10 assistants for each team, everyone eventually gets to know everyone through movement, conferences, etc. Almost every college head coach got his job after being an assistant at another school (most likely, after being an assistant at several schools), so a head coach knows how big of a deal it is when an assistant gets the call to run a program.

In business, it is not a good thing if your high potentials are getting their big opportunity someplace else. However, what are you doing to ensure that they get meaningful promotions internally? Is a VP rewarded when one of her directors becomes VP in another division? Or, is she seen as someone who can’t keep good talent? If it is the former, she will attract more high potentials (internally and externally).

You can create this kind of culture if you encourage and train your executives to mentor talent. Recognize them publicly when their direct reports move on to better positions so they will be encouraged to continue to nurture talent and high potentials will want to work for them.

Just Give Job Seekers the Information They Need

I’ve written in the past about ensuring that job postings are free from potential discrimination. But, summer is also the time when we think about internships and attracting early career talent. No, this is not going to be a screed about millennials and their work ethic. Rather, I will ask you to consider whether your job postings are appealing to them.

This article encourages employers to be direct, rather than using jargon in their postings. More importantly, and in contrast with the stereotype that younger workers are looking for things that are flashy, the more effective ads had basic information. Apparently, listing things like salary ranges, location, and the company’s mission is important. Who knew?

What is effective in marketing, which is what job postings really are, changes regularly. So, what works now may not work in 12 months. Fortunately, this is a data-rich environment, so there are things you can do to measure the success of your postings:

1) Experiment with language and see which versions attract more interest.

2) Get input from recent hires on the content of the ads. This will help keep you current as to what job seekers in a specific demographic are looking for.

3) Your ATS probably does keyword searches on resumes and your social media likely relies on keywords, perhaps those same ones, to show up in better places on the web. Measure whether those keywords are attracting the people you want to reach.

The message here is really not to get overly cute or overthink job postings for entry level positions or internships. If you are direct and provide the job seeker what s/he is looking for, you are likely to attract more interest.

Higher Minimum Wages and Success in the Hospitality Industry

The state of California and several of its cities have been on the forefront of raising the minimum wage.  The arguments for (people cannot live on the current minimum wage) and against (it will cost jobs because business will need to lay people off) it are familiar.  But now there is some data that makes a very interesting link between quality and the impact of raising wages.

This study looks at the impact of raises in the minimum wage and restaurant employment in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Don’t be fooled by the academic nature of the paper—the authors do a good job of explaining things in English before digging into the math (though you can get another explanation here with an eye towards the political).  The main takeaway from the article is that well run restaurants (in this case, defined by high Yelp ratings) are not impacted by minimum wage hikes.  Crappy restaurants (based on quality, not menu price) saw their already higher closure rate go up with the increases.  So, what does this mean for HR?

  • Well run businesses can absorb higher wages when their competitors cannot. This may mean higher prices (in some instances people will pay for quality) or that these businesses can survive on lower profit margins.  HR can contribute to this through good hiring (brining in people who can deliver high levels of customer service) and training (developing a learning culture) practices.
  • Use data to improve quality. The study shows that online feedback (in this case, Yelp reviews) is strongly correlated with business success.  This customer input should be used to improve service and quality.
  • If we presume that the vast majority of the workers at the restaurants are at minimum wage (as the paper does), this research tells us that paying more is not an indicator of quality or success. If restaurant A is getting a rating of 5 and restaurant B is getting a rating of 3, it is not due to wage differentials.  Rather, it is likely based on the quality of the product and the level of service.  HR may not have much impact on the former, but it certainly does on the latter.

What the paper really tells is that that business can succeed without necessarily being the one that pays the highest wages.  When wages are held constant, hiring the best people from the available labor pool may lead to higher service delivery.  This, in addition to a good product, can keep a business successful, even if wages are forced to go up.

When Even Tech Job Training Lags Behind Need

In any employment market there are going to be jobs in high demand and those that go unfilled.  In our tech driven economy, the jobs that are hard to recruit for range from utility lineman (long hours, hard work, and fabulous pay) and, strangely enough, cyber security.  With all of the hype and news around hacking, I was surprised to learn that these $80k/year jobs are readily available.  But why?

From a selection standpoint, good cyber security engineers need an odd combination of skills.  Of course they need to be great programmers with high levels of critical thinking.  However, they often need to have a criminal’s mindset (“How would I get into this system without someone knowing?”), which makes them a risky hire given their access to sensitive data.  And makes them attractive on the black market.

The incentives for prevention jobs are also difficult.  After all, they are performing well when nothing goes wrong.  But, when someone breaks into the system…

This is an opportunity for industry and universities to work together.  College students want tech jobs (sorry to those of you who recruit linemen), but they tend to want to work in the sexier product/app development area. Tech companies can show higher education how to make the field more “fun,” perhaps through gamification and appealing to the cat-and-mouse aspect of the work.

My sense is that they pay for these jobs will also need to rise to fill them.  If it is true that good cyber security engineers have good hacking skills, there needs to be a sense of doing the right thing pays at least almost as well as breaking into systems.

What we see is that even tech companies need to be thinking about how to get future workers trained and recruited for jobs that are not that appealing.  As our economy constantly evolves, companies will still need “legacy” employees (yes, some day, app development will be boring compared to what is hot then).  And it is possible that the cycle of job obsolescence will become shorter.  This makes the challenge for schools to provide the skills to future employees even greater.  Industry and education will both benefit if they work together in that venture.  I just hope in the meantime no one has hacked my blog.

Recruiting and Customers

When a consumer brand, especially a national one, looks for new hires, they are doing more than acquiring talent. They are making an impression on their customer base as much as any other piece of advertising.  That in and of itself is not a revelation (or, at least it shouldn’t be).  Rather, consider how much that information has been used in designing recruiting tools or assessments.

This is important because some of these companies will come in contact with a million or more potential candidates and customers.  While HR may loathe the idea of working with marketing (data vs. feelings) on recruitment and selection, there are some inherent advantages, including:

  1. Using language that will attract the target audience.  The marketing department probably knows more about reaching those who are attracted to the company than HR does. This can increase the effectiveness or your recruitment outreach.
  2. Making Awesome Realistic Job Previews.  At the risk of over-generalizing, most HR departments are much better at describing a job than getting people excited about one.  Sure, an RJP should discourage those who would not be a good fit, but it should also grab the attention of those who maybe would not have considered the job to increase the talent pool from which you are drawing. A marketing perspective is likely to help design RJPs to attract job seekers.
  3. Following-up With Non-Selected Candidates.  Let’s face it, you are likely to reject more candidates than you hire.  Not following up with them hurts your brand. And you want to keep them as (potential) customers, right?  Marketing can likely help you craft messages in a way that leave the person with a positive feeling about the brand so that they will become customers (or stay that way).

 

HR has an important job to do when recruiting and selecting talent.  Yet, it should be mindful that its messaging can have as much impact on customers as anything that comes out of the marketing department.  Reaching across departments can add some expertise that will make recruitment and selection more effective.  And, who knows, maybe they will ask for your advice in the future.

Putting Tech Diversity Puzzle Pieces Together

I am going to write about an issue with political ramifications while doing my best not to be political, so please accept these thoughts in that light.

One thread going through the proposed ban on legal immigration to the U.S. is the effect it will have on the tech industry.  Those companies are concerned that some of the talent they need from other countries will be unable to either enter the U.S. on an H-1 visa or be allowed to immigrate here.

Another issue that the tech industry has struggled with is hiring a diverse workforce in the U.S.  Much has been made of the lack of women and (domestic) minorities in the tech field.

However, there are more programs to teach tech skills to minorities and girls than you can shake a stick at.  A Google search of “minority tech training” garnered almost 18 million hits and “girls tech training” got 198 million. So, there is not a shortage of opportunities to obtain coding or other tech skills in the U.S. and these programs have created a pipeline of talent.  Likewise, there are specific tech incubator programs for women and minorities who want to start their own companies.

Why is all of this important?  Primarily because for a company to be innovative it needs to look at the world through a window and not a straw.  There are more tech users outside of the U.S. than inside, so to be successful internationally companies need foreign talent.  Shutting our borders and wanting our companies to compete overseas is a difficult problem to solve.  Women and minorities outnumber white males in the U.S., so the companies that harness those perspectives are likely to be the most successful ones.

So, what might be the barriers to connecting talent to opportunity?

  • Hiring like us. I’ve written before about the built in bias we all have of wanting to be with others who have a similar background.  This is very prevalent when it comes to which schools the person attended, which sports s/he played, etc.  This can be alleviated by:
    1. Removing names from resumes.
    2. Removing schools and extra-curricular activities from resumes, unless you have data supporting their use (and the literature on the validity of training and experience measures is not encouraging).
    3. Recruiting where you have never recruited before. For instance, go to schools that are not currently represented in your workforce.
  • Candidates being unfamiliar with the hiring process. In our bubbles we think that every step of the hiring process is normal.  But, to use a tech example, if I come from an area without many tech companies, I might not be familiar with “whiteboarding” code problems as part of an interview.  Being transparent about the steps and letting people know what to expect removes a potential barrier between you and a qualified candidate.
  • Hiring processes that invite bias. Whether it is how you score your interviews or evaluate resumes, having an evaluation rubric will reduce bias.
  • Echo chambers on interview panels. Have diverse points of view (e.g., people from different departments) on your interview panel.  This is likely to encourage meaningful follow-up questions, even within a structured interview.

I do not think that lowering standards is an appropriate response to creating a more diverse and innovative workforce.  Building walls (metaphorical or otherwise) makes the problem worse.  Rather, companies need to build more bridges to find qualified candidates to bring different perspectives to their organizations.  Yeah, I get that it is more work, but a competitive marketplace demands it.

What Implicit Bias Looks Like

The idea of implicit bias has been making its way into the business vernacular.  It involves the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.  As you probably gathered from the definition, implicit bias is something we all have.  They are little mental shortcuts we have which can lead to discriminatory behavior.

Examples of implicit bias are found throughout the hiring process, including recruiting, interviews, and performance appraisals.  I think that you will find this interview very helpful in understanding how these biases creep into our decision making. 

It really breaks down the abstract to the actual behaviors and their impacts.

At this point of the blog is where I normally come up with a prescription of what to do.  The only problem is that there are no good empirical studies showing how to reduce implicit bias.  There are some lab studies with college students which support some short-term effectiveness, but some police departments swear that they are a waste of time.  So, the jury is still out.  But, there are some things you can do to reduce the opportunity for bias:

  • You can (mostly) decode gender out of job postings.
  • Take names off of applications before they are sent for review. The law requires that race, gender, and age information be optional on applications to help avoid discrimination.  For the same reason, you should redact names on applications and resumes before they are evaluated (if they are not already being machine scored).
  • If you are using pre-employment tests that do not have adverse impact, weight them more than your interviews, which are likely loaded with bias. If you insist on putting final decisions in the hands of interviewers, use a very structured process (pre-written questions, detailed scoring rubrics, etc.).

All humans have implicit biases—we want to be surrounded by our in-group.  A reduction in these biases, or at least fewer opportunities to express them, will likely lead you to a more diverse, and better performing, team.

Really, Autonomy is NOT Overrated

To use a tired cliché, they call it Show Business for a reason. Fortunately, within the last 10 years or so, the news media in Los Angeles has been covering that industry as it would any other large one in the region. So, it made a local splash when the Chairman and CEO of CBS said at a conference when discussing the artistic freedom that streaming services and others give filmmakers, “Autonomy is overrated” and “I helped cast ‘Friends.’ I was an executive… We help the process at the studio, at the network.”

I think there are better ways to support your argument than a one-off example from 20+ years ago. Also, Mlodinow’s book The Drunkard’s Walk cites some pretty good examples how much randomness goes into the success of entertainment ventures, so for each positive example he provided for casting I’m sure there is another one where his control over the decision making process hurt the project. Or, maybe the show would have been just as successful with the original casting. But, I digress.

Autonomy is freedom from external control or influence. It does not mean doing something without input or ideas from others. It is a state of independence in that you have the final say on decisions. Perhaps from an executive’s point of view that’s dangerous or nerve wracking, but for employees it is anything but overrated. The data show that perceived autonomy is related to many important organizational outcomes, including productivity and job satisfaction.

What he was really talking about was his company’s willingness to invest $X million of dollars into anything without having some veto rights in terms of content, casting, etc. In this case, it’s buying content and the struggle is over who really owns it. In a more typical scenario, it’s hiring people to execute a business plan and the struggle is over how much control the managers feel they needs to have over employees.

This week I’m working with a retail client in building competency models. They have recently moved to a business model where customer engagement is more important than it had been in the past. One example that middle managers gave of this was getting rid of a multi-tiered refund policy (this happens if you have a receipt, this happens if it’s after 30 days, etc.) and giving the store managers the decision making authority to say “Yes” to pretty much any reasonable refund request. I’m guessing that customers don’t think that this autonomy is overrated.

Autonomy is also a key part of the “gig” economy. While there are important legal issues as to whether these people are employees in certain situations, the larger issue is that there’s a strong need for them to feel that they are controlling their own destiny. A few months ago I got a ride from a woman who was living the gig economy dream. She had a “regular” part-time job where she had control of her hours. She drove for two ride sharing services and rented out a room in her house. When I asked her if that was a lot to keep track of, she responded that she was a good time manager (obviously) and that the freedom to work (or not work) any specific set of hours was important to her.

My observation is that millennials enjoy the autonomy that technology gives them. This leads to an expectation of it in the workplace. Employers should use this as an opportunity to create engagement.

Giving people (appropriate) decision making authority should not be scary if they are properly hired and trained. Executives who fear autonomy are missing out on engaged and high performing employees.

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