What to do when an interviewer asks -
“Should I be hiring you because of what you are?”
Douglas J Miller, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
HR Focus Point, Inc.
May 5, 2020
Let’s start by defining X as your race and defining Y as your gender. So...what would you do in the following scenario? Let me set it up:
You’ve been invited in for in-person interviews in two separate rounds of interviews. You’ve interviewed with six people from various departments. All of the conversations have been highly engaging. Following each conversation your confidence grows based on the encouragement you’ve received after each interview (lots of head-nodding, back-and-forth idea exchange, live confirmation of alignment, consistently and heart-felt “it was great meeting you”). During this process, you begin to develop a connection to the people and business. You can envision how you can make a positive impact and begin formulating your 30-, 60-, 90-day plan in your head.
In your seventh and final interview, you meet with the person whom you will report to, who is a member of the executive team. Again, the pattern continues -- an abundance of encouragement, a conversation with a purpose, a discussion that almost begins to solve real workplace problems, the relationship is beginning to form.
The final question - “Should I be hiring you because you are a X and Y?” ...followed by the declaration - “It may be more difficult for you in terms of acceptance from the team because you are X and Y -- you may need to work on gaining credibility.”
Again, insert your race as X and your gender as Y. To engage in a diversity thought exercise, is there any one example below that is more offensive?
A. Should I be hiring you because you are a black male?
B. Should I be hiring you because you are an asian female?
C. Should I be hiring you because you are a native American male?
D. Should I be hiring you because you are a hispanic female?
E. Should I be hiring you because you are a white male?
How about -
F. Should I be hiring you because of your pregnancy?
Are all of these questions equally offensive? Perhaps in the 1960s all of these except for ‘E’ were commonplace--all asked openly or verbalized behind closed doors without much thought. And most definitely the white males had the leg-up. Now we’re in the 2020s and it appears those applicants in the ‘E’ example above are being asked this question candidly and contemplated openly within interview teams. To be fair, all these questions may present themselves behind closed doors or considered unconsciously, but in today’s world not openly except for one.
Most of us can imagine, especially if we are in a marginalized group, the repugnant thought of someone being asked directly by their potential future boss - “Should I be hiring you because you are a black male? It may take more work for you to gain credibility because you are a black male.” Then the candidate sitting there, after contemplating such a ridiculous question, is expected to respond with positivity and to accept this reality.
I was recently discussing someone’s job search. I was surprised to learn of their experience that repeated over and over. Let’s call the applicant “Paul” to protect his identity. In a recent job search, Paul experienced the ‘should I be hiring you because of what you are’ question openly and without hesitation by the interviewer. However, the question was asked (not in one or two, but in three different interview processes with three different organizations) -- “Should I be hiring you because you are a white male? It may take more work for you to gain credibility because you are a white male.” One of the interviewers was transparent enough to share that the executive team has been considering this very question. The question likely should have been “Should I not be hiring you…”
So as with the black male, he too was presented with the challenge of responding to such an offensive inquiry. Ironically, it was as if the interviewer felt emboldened to ask this question because of his awareness of the lack of diversity in the workplace.
When does unconscious bias become conscious bias and when is that okay?
You may be wondering -- isn’t this line of questioning illegal? Utterly frowned upon and completely inappropriate, but asking the question within and of itself is not technically illegal. What’s illegal is not the knowledge of the information, but it’s what someone does with that information and ultimately proving the decision was made not to hire was based on a protected class (race, ethnicity, gender, etc.).
What I’ve learned from hearing of these experiences -
WE NEED MORE EFFECTIVE DIVERSITY TRAINING IN OUR WORKPLACES.
As the applicant, Paul, sat there mulling over how to respond, he found himself trying to present elements of diversity that were not necessarily visible to others (he thought, “perhaps my mannerisms would give a hint I am gay -- I don’t know”). He presumed that the interviewer saw him as a privileged white male and that is why he asked that question. Maybe he thought in order to honor diversity they needed to hire a non-white non-male in this role and for teams to celebrate progress they required visible evidence of diversity.
Paul was placed in a situation in which he felt he needed to prove that he was from humble beginnings. He did not grow up privileged. He grew up on a farm, in a trailer. His dad was a mechanic and Paul’s mom stayed at home to raise the kids. Looking back on it, although he didn’t give it much thought, his family didn’t have a whole lot of money. Paul then had to weave in his ‘partner’ into the conversation and ensure he used the pronouns he and him - to ensure he landed some additional elements of diversity. All of this in his final interview question with at least three different companies.
As with many of our experiences during interviews, Paul was keenly focused on building rapport with the people with whom he was meeting. In the final stages he found himself trying to satisfy the desire to get into the layers of who he was personally...not just what he had to offer professionally. The intersectionality was not only what someone sees from the outside but the many characteristics of what makes Paul unique and diverse. Engagement with teams may be more diverse than seen on the surface. If we understand intersectionality, we are more unique than expected and can uncover an entire range of differences among us.
As in the 1960s, this problem of openly debating race and gender as a hiring consideration, is still evident and pervasive.
WE NEED MORE EFFECTIVE DIVERSITY TRAINING IN OUR WORKPLACES NOW.
I failed to mention the role that Paul was interviewing for were heads of HR roles. And not only is Paul a white male, but he’s a bit older in age with many years of accomplished HR experience. So there is an additional element to consider - older white male, which is interesting because HR generally has a gender bias favoring women, but Paul still felt he had a lot working against him as evidenced by the questions that were asked.
I can tell you, after studying employee and leadership behavior for 25 years, it’s not gender or race by themselves that establishes diversity--it’s many many other variables PLUS life and professional experiences. Elevating workplace diversity starts with training, engagement, and wisdom sharing to excite change within people. It’s the ability to show non-judgemental empathy, interest, curiosity, agility, respect, dignity, and a willingness to address regressive thinking head-on. It’s the ability to recognize unconscious bias, develop programs that do not unintentionally marginalize certain groups, callout bias, create a culture rich with diversity, recognize empathy, develop highly impactful training programs, and so on. As an example, hiring a black female within and of itself does not ensure this person has the proven skills to improve diversity and inclusion. That’s actually a variant of bias.
Diversity is not marginalizing any one characteristic that makes us all unique individuals. It’s ensuring we are all on a level playing field, where we are all given equal chances to prove worth that is not based on our skin color, gender, sexuality, religion, or any other individual trait. Equal rights is not giving some a leg-up, which by definition requires us to pull others down. Improved diversity action is not simply becoming aware of the lack of visible diversity at the expense to others--it’s doing something about it. It’s celebrating that we are all truly on an equal playing field and welcome people of all backgrounds. It’s recognizing the much broader array of qualified individuals for all of us to consider. It puts more people in the ring as equal counterparts.
To be clear: for far too long (and certainly continuing today in varying forms) there are many groups who have been marginalized, not seen for the value and significance they can offer others, but seen through a bigoted lens where superficial aspects and stereotypes have been the primary decision making elements. But by simply placing this notion on its head by correcting this severe injustice by degrading others is not the solution. How do we arrive in a world where unconscious bias based on our discriminatory assumptions relating to race, gender, and numerous other aspects that make us unique have been extinguished?
Paul and no one else should feel that their worth has been discounted based on what they are with a watered-down regard for their experiences and demonstrated value. No one should feel the need to uncover personal attributes to fit in or to make others feel more comfortable at the expense of their own well-being and identity.
If you are wondering about the outcome for Paul after the three interview processes with three different companies that ended with “Should I be hiring you because you are a white male?” -- all of them ended with a nice but generic note proclaiming they have decided to move in a different direction, but thanked Paul for his time.
After a lengthy discussion with Paul, his reaction didn’t come across as crying over spilled milk because it is unknown if there were valid nondiscriminatory reasons for not moving him forward. Paul agreed for me to share his story to engage others in a conversation and perhaps to impact one person to think differently when considering the huge world of diversity and unintended consequences and perceptions.
What questions should we ask ourselves and our leaders while contemplating diversity in the workplace?
A rich diversity discussion generally starts with a personal impact story whether that is how diversity (or lack thereof) has been witnessed or how it has been experienced firsthand. That is the reason for this article--to share a real and unpleasant experience. These discussions may be uncomfortable, but uncovering perceptions, understanding intersectionality, and increasing awareness of unconscious bias requires vulnerability, openness, and a willingness to challenge our own thinking.
Here are some questions to consider for your workplace after reading this article -
How does diversity show up in your workplace?
Has best of intentions actually raised a level of unconscious bias?
Do we encourage diversity of thought within our organization; in other words, are we accepting of differing opinions and approaches?
Have we demonstrated a tendency to celebrate like-mindedness and unknowingly expel differences--thus creating an ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group’?
Have we directly engaged in a discussion with our workforces--beyond receiving a thin “we need more diversity” argument? In other words, this takes engagement and action.
Have we engaged with your staff broadly or have we taken the diversity question as a charter to tackle at the executive level?
Have we created a shared journey environment when it comes to improving diversity in the workplace? ...an environment that we’re all in this together?
Have we undertaken a diversity survey to capture employee sentiment as a baseline?
Have we engaged our employees in unconscious bias training to increase awareness?
Have we done any training to engage employees in diversity and respect in the workplace more broadly?
Have we given the tools and training to our managers on how to lead people who are complex in terms of backgrounds, motivators, and drivers?
There are many resources available to expand diverse thinking within individuals and organizations. I encourage people to pick up a book on the subject or engage with companies who can be a catalyst to improving diversity and inclusion in your workplace.
About HR Focus Point® (www.HRFocusPoint.com) -
HR Focus Point offers leadership development programs, diversity and inclusion engagement, Human Resources expertise, and consulting services. We are a catalyst to move organizations forward by being a strategic driver, engaging with businesses on multiple levels, and increasing leadership capabilities. Our signature speaking engagement centers around the concept of Everything Pins to Leadership® with multiple off-shoot training programs to effectively develop leaders in an increasingly complex world.
At one time or another, business leaders determine they need to focus on the realities of today. There are a host of challenges continuously facing leaders. HR Focus Point is here to help focus on a defined business strategy and how to achieve success whether that’s achieving the tactical side of HR, bringing a strategic approach to HR, or to ultimately increase an organization’s leadership capacity.
To discuss how we can help with your diversity journey - send us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo above title by Maranda Vandergriff