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Sue Lani Madsen: When discrimination is a good thing

If you’re looking for work, experience and credentialing may get you an interview but your behavior will get you a job.

With record-low unemployment, there’s a place for any qualified worker. The key word is qualified. The challenge is effective – and legal – screening.

Job interviews are as stressful for organizations as they are for the job candidate. A simple conversation can lead to a potential illegal discrimination claim. So when the Small Business Administration recently published a blog titled “Best Practices: What You Can and Can’t Ask a Job Applicant,” it was disappointing to find a long list of “can’ts” and no “cans.” The author, Barbara Weltman, is an attorney specializing in employment law. In a follow-up interview she agreed the emphasis on “can’t ask” questions is driven by a growing number of laws.

Weltman’s blog cited federal law banning discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.” She added state and local laws may also include “veteran status, criminal history and even hairstyle.”

It’s easy to avoid asking questions off the restricted list. The challenge is not asking indirectly about anything which can’t be asked directly. Even discussing the where and when of high school might be a tip off to age and religion.

Her best advice to a small business owner trying to figure out what to ask?

“I don’t really know what the right answer is for finding out who will be a good fit. You kind of get a feeling in the first few minutes,” said Weltman. Figuring out what you can ask “certainly is a conundrum, and very different from when I was looking for my first job.”

But hiring on gut instinct lets unconscious bias lead to missed opportunity for both company and candidate.

Weltman admitted this could be a problem. “We are all more comfortable with some people than others,” Weltman said, noting there is no legal problem as long as there is there is no overt discrimination.

But that is an unsatisfactory approach.

Local human resources professionals had more practical advice on how to identify a qualified candidate, and they all had a favorite “can ask” question.

Most revolved around behavioral scenarios. Jen Cox, principal at MMEC Architecture & Interiors in Spokane and the Tri-Cities, likes to ask applicants to describe a time they had a conflict with a co-worker and how they resolved it. “It has made or broken interviews depending on how they answer,” said Cox.

A whole lot of questions are off the table, agreed Rebecca Routh, Business Operations Manager for Survival Gear Systems out of Post Falls. Her favorite “can ask” question is “Where would you like to see the company’s growth and where would you like to see yourself in the future?” Applicants who do their homework always stand out.

The golden question for Jim Whitehead, human resources manager for the city of Spokane Valley, is “What do you know about our organization?”

Whitehead sees an interview as the first work product from the person in front of him. The time and care taken in preparation and presentation are a tip off to work ethic and commitment to quality. He likes to conclude an interview with “Do you have anything else to add?” Are they eager to leave, or do they close with “a pitch for how this job fits into their personal goals and how they differ from other candidates?”

Finding legal questions to ask has evolved under pressure from attorneys. “Personally, I didn’t like the old non-job-related questions, like what kind of car you’d like to be,” said Michele Beckman, retired benefits administrator for Whitman County. “Job-related task tests and good behavioral questions are the best.”

Angela Moriani, human resources professional with Spokane County, says she often has to keep circling back on scenarios to get an answer.

“Applicants can be reluctant to describe a time they faced an obstacle and how they approached the situation,” Moriani said.

Her other favorite questions ask applicants to describe how they will identify problems and opportunities, and the work environment in which they will be most effective.

The bottom line, according to attorney Weltman, is each employer is “looking for someone who fits into their company culture.” And that requires discrimination, in the still legal but old-fashioned sense of choosing with wisdom.