Addressing the Last Mile of Discrimination

Many organizations have taken steps (valid tests, removing pictures and names from resumes, blind auditions, etc.) to erase discriminatory practices in hiring.  While by no means perfect, these actions have reduced bias in many places.  A much lauded effort was done in orchestras.  They switched to auditions where the players were behind a screen (and walked across carpet so that shoes would not be a gender giveaway).  This led to a much greater number of women being hired by major orchestras.

Where many organizations now struggle is in pay equity.  It is not secret that equally qualified women make less money than men.  To help correct this, several states and cities have made it illegal for prospective employers to ask about salary history, which historically would be skewed against women.

Of course, what to pay someone has a myriad of factors involved (supply/demand, internal pay equity, recruitment strategy, etc.).  But, organizations with specialized talent face an even trickier task when explaining pay differences between men and women.  Like the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO).

The BSO conducts blind auditions, etc, but make job offers and negotiate salaries face-to-face.  This process has led the lead flautist to sue them because the lead oboe player (who is male) makes about $70k per year more than she does.  See this for a fascinating insider’s view of the suit and how these top-flight orchestra musicians get paid. What it comes down to is that the plaintiff says, “I do essentially the same work as him and I’ve been featured in the orchestra more, so there is no reason that I should be paid less than him.”  The orchestra responds, “That may or may not be true, but lead oboists are harder to find and retain compared to flutists, therefore we have to pay him more to retain his services.”

I would think that more pay equity laws will be enacted in the near term.  Organizations would be wise to review whether they have pay equity, and if they do not, make corrections where it exists.  Or provide a pretty good explanation for where it does exist.  Similarly, providing specific pay-for-skill and/or pay-for-scarcity explanations will go a long way towards pay equity.  And may prevent a sad song from being played on the way out of the courthouse.

Is Age Discrimination a Result of Change?

A class-action age discrimination lawsuit has been filed against IBM.  Much of the complaints in the action come from a report that purports to outline how the company has systematically replaced older workers with newer ones.  IBM is denying the allegations.

There are a couple of compelling issues here.  One is whether IBM is using sly methods to rid itself of older (read: more expensive) workers.  The other is whether workers who are in mid-career are technologically behind their younger counterparts in a meaningful way.  I’ll leave the former to the courts.  I’m much more interested in the latter.

There are some national studies that indicate that openness to new experiences does decrease with age.  However, the ability to learn does not. So, we can assume that older employees who are open to learning new technologies can certainly do so.

Whether it is how we get to a friend’s house or how we use technology, most of us like to stick to what we know and adapt to change in ways that keep our patterns of behavior.  To keep up-to-date on new technology or techniques not only requires a desire to learn, but also the willingness to give up what we have been good at.

There probably is not data to support the idea, but I am guessing that the hiring strategy at many companies is that they would rather select people who know the new stuff rather than try to train for it. If companies decide that they want to bring on those who have experience with newer technology, their layoff/hiring practices will likely show adverse impact against those 40 and older.

A person’s background is instructive in this area.  For people who have stayed up to date on technology throughout their careers, it is foolish to assume that they will not pick up (or haven’t already picked up) on the next new thing.  As such, I don’t believe that they are behind younger workers.  Senior management would have reason to be concerned about older workers who have not shown a willingness to update their skills.

Are older workers less likely to adapt to new technologies?  On the whole, probably.  However, painting them with a broad brush is likely a mistake.  Companies should do a thorough evaluation of the experienced talent before making decisions that can land them in court.

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.

But we Trained Them!

Workplace controversies that make headlines are a bonanza for corporate trainers. Even in states like California that have mandatory sexual harassment training (companies with 50 or more employees are required to provide all supervisors two hours of sexual harassment prevention training within six months of hire or promotion, and every two years thereafter), you can bet that the #MeToo movement has led to an explosion in programs for managers devoted to the topic.

While providing basic information about sexual harassment is a good thing, it is more of a “check the box” activity than a creator of change. The underpinnings of what made it allowable and tolerated run deeper than what can be addressed in a two-hour mandatory training session or firing a couple of executives for egregious behavior. So, how can a company create an environment where incidents of sexual harassment are reduced?

1) Recruit, hire, and promote qualified women. Sociologists tell us that the roots of harassment are power differences. Having women and men participate in an organization with equal footing will likely reduce harassment incidents. Oh, and while you are at it, equal pay based on skill and experience goes a long way.

2) Reward at least some of the means, not just the ends. Cultures that have a win at all costs mentality are prime breeding grounds for harassment. If an organization only focuses on results, top producers can rationalize and get away with more bad behavior. Consider rewarding important process indicators (voluntary turnover, complaints to HR, engagement survey results, etc.) as part of evaluating manager’s performance.

3) Apply corporate sexual harassment policies quickly and as intended. This is where training has benefit. If manager know the policy and implement it correctly, it tells employees that it is as important as other policies and procedures.

Sexual harassment in the workplace did not happen, nor will it disappear, overnight. Our challenge is to create cultures that strongly discourage it. And that takes more than a two hour training band-aid.

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.

Just Pay People for Their Work

There’s been much talk about the new department of labor rule that will require overtime pay for salaried employees making less than $47,476 (the current threshold is $23,660) starting December 1, 2016.  This threshold will now update every three years.  This has led to some typical hand-wringing about whether this will help these employees (it’s a big raise since this ceiling hasn’t been raised in 12 years and no one thought of putting in a cost of living increase) or hinder them (employers will cut out the positions).

Others are really concerned that this will hurt opportunities for younger professionals.  The logic is that if new salaried employees aren’t working 12-14 hour days that they can’t show the boss how much work drive they have.  Or, they’ll miss out on those only-in-the-movies serendipitous meetings with the El Jefe that will put their careers on the fast track.  One executive is quoted as saying, “You wan to bump into the boss at 8 o’clock at night.”

I’ve got an idea. Why doesn’t everyone just leave the office by, oh, 7 o’clock?  OK, this idea is somewhat outdated since even if everyone was at home, they would still be doing work on their phones.  But, at least they are at home.

Another school of thought says that with fewer unpaid hours, “…they will not receive sufficient career development or see timely advancement and/or promotions.”  This is hogwash.  Career development benefits the company and the employee and if everyone is working under the same rules employers will make the time.

Let’s be clear: The employers that work professional people this much and don’t pay overtime are no different than sweatshop operators, even if they think people are putting in the extra hours “of their own volition” (read: they had better or they will get fired)..  They want free labor and are upset that they are going to lose it.

I do get the “this is how we build a hard working culture” argument to a point.  Those that put in the extra hours (and, presumably, the highest results) get rewarded.  This is tied into, “Well, this is how I got to where I am” logic.  Where the problem lies is that it perpetuates promoting a homogeneous group of people (those with a poor worklife balance), which limits you ability to grow the best talent.  Not everyone who puts in a lot of hours is a high performer (don’t confuse activity with results).

If we are to value work in a capitalist economy we have to pay for it.  Convincing people to work overtime for nothing is coercion, plain and simple.  That breeds a culture of fear and taking advantage of others.  Are those your company’s values?

Blind Hiring

I wrote a few weeks ago about Intel’s drive to diversify its workforce. Regular readers know that I write about bias occasionally. It’s good that the topic makes it to the mainstream media occasionally when not related to a lawsuit.

The article talks about techniques to reduce bias. Some are old (truly blind auditions for musicians) and other are new, such as software that provides only the relevant hiring info without showing a person’s name, school attended, or other information that would potentially bias the hiring manager. This puts a premium on validated tests, which I like. Though, I’m sure that there are some readers who would argue that some of these tests are biased as well, but that’s a topic for another post.

This is all well and good, but as any logistics or customer service person will tell you, it’s the last mile that really matters. I can have as diverse of a candidate pool as I want, but if there is bias in the interviewing process, I will be rejecting qualified candidates for non-valid reasons. So, what’s a hiring manager to do?

First, give less weight to the interview and/or make it more valid. Why this barely better than a coin-flip technique makes or breaks a hiring decision when proven and validated techniques are shoved the side is beyond me. OK—I get it. People want to feel in control and have buy-in to the hiring process. But, can we at least be more rational about it? Interview scores should be combined with other data (with appropriate weighting) and the overall score should be used to make hiring decisions, not the one unreliable data point.

Second, why not blind interviewing? Hear me out. How many jobs really require someone to think on their feet and provide oral answers to complex questions? Sure, there are some (sales, for instance), but not that many. Why not have candidates submit written answers to interview questions? The scoring would be more reliable (evaluating grammar/spelling could be optional for jobs where it’s not critical), and accents, gender, and skin color would be taken out of the equation. Think about it.

Lastly, a diverse workforce is a result of a valid and inclusive selection process. When companies approach it the other way (working backwards from hiring goals by demographic group), they miss the point. Diversity isn’t about filling buckets. It’s about providing equal opportunity every step of the way when hiring.

For more information on valid pre-employment testing hiring practices, contact Warren Bobrow.

Filling Diversity Buckets

With great fanfare, Intel announced recently that it is making progress in meeting its diversity goals. I’m not going to pick on their numbers as their current demographics are what they are. There are some good lessons we can learn from how they approached the issue.

  • You have to be holistic. They understand that culture, recruitment, and retention all play a part in attracting, hiring, and keeping diverse talent.
  • Drill down in the data. Intel looks at hiring and retention in different job categories. Saying that you are diverse overall, but not in high paying jobs, is not much of a victory.
  • It takes significant resources to make changes. Developing a pipeline of diverse talent requires money in scholarships, helping schools, etc and finding untapped recruitment pools take time and money.
  • Just like any other business outcome, the goals are reached only if they are measured AND if there are rewards for doing so. Sorry, but you cannot assume that people will strive for noble goals out of the goodness of their hearts.
  • It’s more than hiring numbers. You need to get the compensation and culture right to retain people. Oh, and selecting and developing good managers, as that has a huge influence on turnover.

This article goes into a bit more depth about the challenges Intel are facing. Not surprisingly, there are concerns about balancing multiculturalism (celebrating differences) and integration (making one big happy family). It also points out that if people are spending time on diversity programs, it takes them away from their “real” job (unless they are in the diversity department) and makes it tougher to get promoted and make the higher ranks more diverse.

Just as importantly, this is a case study about what doesn’t work. There is a lot of good science about unconscious bias. However, Intel found that training people about it doesn’t really affect their decisions, or at least as much as tying their compensation to it does.

You can see how Intel treated this as a supply chain as a human resources issue. It’s an interesting approach that probably led to some creative ideas. You’ll note that there is no discussion about lowering standards, which is divisive and bad for the businesses. It is also something that probably is not discussed when they are sourcing equipment. Just something to keep in mind when making important business decisions.

Should HR Use Social Media Blinders?

Every couple of weeks I come across some sort of article or opinion piece about whether or not HR departments should use social media sites when recruiting or selecting candidates. The articles usually fall into one of two categories:

  • Of course you should, dummy! Any data is good data. How can you pass this up?
  • Using social media data is a one-way ticket to court and is immoral! Every bias companies have is out there and you’ll be discriminating against people, whether you want to or not.

The latest one that caught my eye was definitely in the second category. Not surprisingly, the author uncovered research data that showed that certain information found on social media would bias employers. Sort of like everything we know about how information about race, age, gender, religion, etc in resumes and interviews leads to bias. No surprises here.

People who think all social media information should be ignored seem to have this idea that HR departments spend a lot of time snooping candidates’ social media. Maybe some do, even if to check work history on LinkedIn, but that attitude strikes me as paranoid.

We do know that social media activity does correlate with personality traits which are predictive of job performance, so there is likely some valid data out there. My biggest issue with using social media to recruit or make selections is the self-selection bias. Not everyone uses social media or uses it in the same way. So, while there might be predictive information within a sample of candidates (those active on social media), it is less reliable for the population of candidates (everyone you may be interested in, whether or not they are active on social media).

As with any selection tool, you’ll want to make the playing field level. If you want to read about candidates’ business history, let them know that you’ll be taking a look at their profiles, connections, etc on LinkedIn (where they’ll have their “professional” face on). If I’m hiring for a programmer, you can bet that I would be interested in the open source code contributions they have made.

We’re at the tip of the iceberg as to what valid information can be gleaned from social media. By the time we find out, the platforms we use now are likely to be obsolete (what, we can soon use more than 140 characters on Twitter?). But, the “rules” for using social media information should be the same as any other selection tool:

  • Is what you are looking for job related?
  • Is the information gathered reliable, or just one person’s opinion about what it means?
  • Would the information potentially have adverse impact against protected groups?
  • Is this really the best way to learn whether the person possesses that knowledge, skill, ability, or personal characteristic?

What, if anything are you doing to evaluate candidates online?

For more information about valid selection methods, contact Warren Bobrow.

Is There a Hiring Bias Against Those With Disabilities?

Most HR professionals are aware of the biases that come along with hiring racial minorities and women. Can we now add disabilities to the list? This is an important question given the number of wounded veterans and others with disabilities in the workforce.

The paper describes how resumes were sent to accounting firms (of varying size) and listed no disability, Asperger’s Syndrome, or a spinal cord injury. Those with disabilities got about 25% fewer responses. Interestingly, the differences were largely explained by the size of the firm, with the smallest ones being less inclined to respond favorable to a resume from someone who is disabled.

While the study is interesting, I question the methodology. For instance, do people with disabilities normally put them on their resumes? Websites dedicated to helping those with disabilities find employment tell people NOT to. Also, it’s not required by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). I get the authors point and they are following a methodology used to measure discrimination against women and minorities based on their names, but I don’t think it generalizes to disabilities if listing it on a resume is not common practice.

However, if we assume that hesitancy to hire the disable generalizes from a resume to seeing someone in person, it is telling that smaller firms (<15 employees) were more likely to reject the disabled applicants than larger ones. These businesses account for about 18% of the employment in the U.S., so we’re not talking about small potatoes. Also, the ADA doesn’t apply to them, while there is a patchwork of state ADA-ish laws that might. As such, those companies may not be as aware of what is discrimination against the disabled or given much thought to reasonable accommodations. One can easily imagine the thinking (or subconscious) of one of these firms when they realize an applicant is disabled. What about my health insurance costs? How will I cover any additional days missed?

At the risk of being cynical, one can only suppose that those with disabilities face some level of discrimination. I am optimistic in thinking that every small business wants to hire the best person, regardless of disability. Maybe small business just needs some education on the topic.

For more information on recruiting and hiring those with the skills and abilities to do your work, please contact Warren Bobrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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