In a post a few months ago, I wrote about the city of Los Angeles selecting which applicants for their firefighter positions would move on in the process based on whether they got their applications in immediately after the opening period. This was deemed as being fair since it was random. Later on it was found that some people in the fire department knew about this and may have told their friends to be sure they got their materials in as soon as possible. Regardless, there was some outcry over the “unfairness” of choosing people based on how quickly they got in their applications.
The city, at the behest of the mayor, has now revised its approach. People have the opportunity to submit applications over the next couple of weeks. A random draw (well, not quite random as we’ll see) will be used to choose those who get to take the written exam. Those not chosen will stay in the pool for the next drawing. A spokesperson for the mayor said, “Mayor Garcetti is seeking a system that results in a fire department that better reflects the city of Los Angeles and has the best possible firefighters.”
How will this process better reflect the city? Well, it’s not a random draw after all. The drawing is weighted so that the demographic results match those who apply. Importantly, not the demographics of the city, despite what the mayor’s office says. Unless you think that firefighter applicants represent the city in terms of race and gender. So, from the sub-pool of Hispanic females, the drawing is random. So, if 20% of the applicants are Hispanic females, about 20% of those chosen to take the test will be also. No guarantee (yet) as to whether 20% of those who pass the written exam will also have to be.
Let’s be clear. When you are randomly picking people from a large group of applicants you are not taking steps to select the best possible people for the job, unless there is nothing learned about a person from the application that is a predictor of performance or a disqualifier (e.g., criminal record). Then again, training and experience (T&E) evaluations are not good predictors of performance, so maybe the city is on to something here. Regardless, a random draw ensures that the quality of the people taking the test is the same as the entire pool of applicants. That is not making certain that the best people are taking the test.
I get the reality that the city is at more risk for being sued over discriminatory hiring practices than over the performance of its firefighters. It is doubtful that the ROI of hiring more effective firefighters in the city will ever be computed so it could be compared to any legal payouts. However, choosing people randomly at any point in a selection process sets a bad precedent. It ignores science and common sense and sends the message that the city is not particularly interested in investing the resources to hire those most likely to be successful in a job, whether it be firefighter or janitor. How is that fair to the applicants or city residents?
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