Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Axiom Strategy Session

The Monthly Q&A from Axiom Strategy Advisors, LLC

“Can a prospective employer ask me about my nation of origin during an interview?” (M.W., Abita Springs, Louisiana)

This is actually an intriguing question, simply because the answer is both “yes” and “no”.

Today’s job market seems to be one wherein employers have the advantage. The recession caused businesses to shed 8.4 million jobs, and now nearly one in every ten American workers is without employment. These unemployed men and women, in addition to those who are underemployed or just looking for a change, are competing aggressively for comparatively fewer jobs in the marketplace. Consequently, prospective employers not only have a better talent pool from which to select their new hires; they can also do so at lower wages.

These facts notwithstanding, though it may be a tougher for majority of applicants to score interviews for coveted positions, none of it means that the game has entirely changed. In fact, equal opportunity rules prohibit many forms of discrimination by would-be employers during the hiring process, and if anything, under the Obama administration, employers can expect those rules to be enforced more vigorously. Therefore, when commencing the interview process, an employer must remain mindful of the risks that he might face, lest his thoughtless practices lead to litigation from the applicant(s), regulatory fines from the government, or both. That is to say little of the negative publicity likely to arise from such troubles.

As a general rule, during the interview process, an employer qua interviewer should not ask questions regarding the following subjects:

  • · Race and ethnicity
  • · Nation of origin
  • · Religion
  • · Gender
  • · Age
  • · Health and physical impediments
  • · Martial status
  • · Sexual orientation
  • · Number of children
  • · Provisions for child care
  • · Status of homeownership
  • · Credit rating
  • · The existence of personal credit and/or charge accounts
  • · Arrest records

The rule is not absolute. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency tasked with the enforcement of nondiscriminatory workplace policies, does permit an employer to ask questions pertaining to any of the aforementioned subjects if the questions are pertinent to the specific job for which a person is applying. Consequently, if a specific employer handles government contracts, then questions about an applicant’s nation of origin may be permissible under the guise of national security.

In spite of these tricky areas, employers still have a lot of latitude when it comes to vetting potential hires. In fact, there are certain types of questions that employers should ask during the interview process. Here are just a few of the subjects:

· Past experience and responsibilities – It should go without saying that an employer should want to know about an applicant’s work history. He should ask the applicant very concise questions about past employment, as well as about any responsibilities held on those jobs. Additionally, the employer should have the applicant detail his or her capabilities and explain any major professional accomplishments.

· Past performance – As the employer inquires about past experience, he should ask the applicant to explain how his or her on-the-job performance was measured and, according to such measurements, how he or she actually performed. The employer also has a right to know if an applicant had troubles on a previous job, and so, he must directly ask the applicant about his reason for leaving previous jobs.

· Education and training – An applicant’s educational credentials are often pertinent to obtaining better-paying employment. Such being the case, the employer should ask an applicant to produce his or her academic credentials or industry training certifications very early in the vetting process.

· Salary history and expectations – Another subject that should come in the interview process is the subject of compensation. The employer should request all applicants’ salary histories and expectations during the application period and before the interview process begins. Evaluating this information early on, in some cases, gives an employer leverage during compensation negotiations later, or, in other cases, it keeps him from wasting his time on applicants who exceed the budgetary constraints set for the new position.

· Gaps, short tenures, and inconsistencies – The employer should ask an applicant to explain any and all employment gaps and short stints of employment in the applicant’s work history. Additionally, the employer also should have the applicant clarify any inconsistencies on that applicant’s resume. For employers, this is a critical subject. In 2007, for example, according to a CareerBuilders.com survey, 57% of hiring managers reported they uncovered inconsistencies on the resumes from applicants. Employment gaps and short work stints can raise cautionary flags about the applicant’s stability, while inconsistencies point squarely to character issues on the part of the applicant. All of it should be enough to encourage a smart employer to look elsewhere.

· Personality and self-perception – As acclaimed author and psychologist Daniel Goleman has taught us, emotional intelligence (EQ) plays a greater role in the lives of people than their general intelligence (IQ). Consequently, today’s employers are eager to delve deeper into the minds of their applicants, in order to understand the psychological health of those applicants and to determine if the potential hires will fit well in their organizations. To accomplish this, employers are requiring applicants to take personality exams like the Myers-Briggs-Jung exam or the DISCProfile. Such exams help to paint a clearer picture of the personality and the probable tendencies of the applicant, and they give employers another critical tool for evaluating the people seeking position in their businesses.

· Knowledge about the industry, company, and offerings – Applicants with requisite knowledge and experience are, of course, better candidates than those who have little to no knowledge about the industry or the business to which they are applying. Therefore, employers should not hesitate to ask an applicant how much he knows about the business.

· Personal goals – Asking an applicant about his or her personal goals can help an employer to better understand the near- and long-term aspirations of the applicant.

· Personal interests – Also asking an applicant about his or her personal interests can help an employer to better understand the lifestyle of the applicant beyond the workplace.

· Other interviews – In this tight job market, it is conceivable that some applicants may be courting several potential employers, while they hedge for the most attractive employment package. To determine whether this is the case, an employer should ask an applicant if he or she is interviewing with other companies, and, if so, with whom. This will help the employers in the decision-making process.

Employers are also well-served to perform background checks on their potential hires. Such reports can help to unearth critical facts that will likely impact applicant selection. What’s more, while asking about an applicant’s credit history and criminal history may be tricky subjects, a comprehensive background check will provide this information much more easily.

For employers looking to add to their staffs, the bevy of available talent has probably never looked so good. Nevertheless, hiring in today’s job market still comes with all of the same litigious pitfalls that existed before the recession. Employers need to be very conscientious about the types of questions they ask applicants, or they could be exposing themselves to trouble. Therefore, it is better that employers stick to the general rule, avoiding some trivial subjects entirely, while keeping the avenue of inquest open for pertinent questions related directly to the job and the applicant’s likely ability to perform in it.

The Axiom Strategy Session is a monthly knowledge product from Axiom Strategy Advisors, LLC. If you have a question for the consultancy, please write info@axiomstrategyadvisors.com.


Anonymous said...

This was a very useful post. Thank you for writing it.

Anonymous said...

When I applied for this job I have I was asked if I was married or a single mother. I started not to answer. The interviewer (a woman) was relieved when I said that the wedding was in a month, and she said that was going to help me get the job, and it did!

mike carson said...

You would be pretty amazed by the number of employers who either do not know about the rules governing discriminatory questioning, or who will just disregard them, altogether. That is even true here in California. I openly suspect that those who just trounce what you call the general rule are not afraid of litigation, because, in most cases, the actual discrimination goes unreported, or it is hard to prove by a plaintiff.

Cedrick said...

Right after college I applied for this job with at a small business that sells and leases construction equipment and trucks. When I went to the interview I could tell that the owner was not to thrilled about the man walking in. And during the interview he asked me: "There are 23 white people here and no blacks. You don't have a problem with that, do you?" So I said: "Well, sir, do you?" I got the job but I did not take it.

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