Several years ago, the CEO of a company for whom I’d been writing for asked if I knew of anyone who had experience composing whitepapers.
“Well,” I replied. “I wrote a few when I was in University and got top marks on all of them.”
“Really?” he asked, somewhat surprised. “How long ago was that?”
“Um, last year.”
Boom! There it was—my first head-on collision with ageism. And it hurt.
The craziest part? He had no idea what he’d done.
Would it surprise you to know that recruiters are frequently challenged by personal biases when hiring?
In 2012, Yale University conducted a study where an equal number of male and female scientists were asked to review a job application of identically qualified men and women. Scientists were chosen due to their “supposed ability to root out gender bias because they are trained to reject subjective criteria.” The results were astounding; not only did both genders respond the same as other test groups in choosing men over women, they believed men to be more skilled than women and were willing to offer the men higher starting salaries. $4,000 more!
In Canada and the United States, discrimination is illegal. The Canadian Human Rights Commission and US Commission of Civil Rights define discrimination as the unfair or negative treatment of individuals for gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, and disabilities, to name a few.
But here’s the rub. Illegal though it is, incidents like those revealed in the Yale study are everywhere. The most significant reason is implicit bias, a collection of faulty thinking that is hard-wired into our subconscious. It’s important to note that biases rarely align with our declared beliefs, and, according to developments in neuroscience, are most times unconscious and formed in small but frequent hits throughout our entire lives.
As a job-seeker, you may wonder whether it’s necessary to prepare answers in advance for interview questions that hint at discrimination; they’re off-limits after all. The answer is yes, and here’s why.
Most illegal questions are asked out of ignorance, not evil intent. Untrained employees are frequently asked to step in to conduct interviews and might be untrained on ways to identify their unconscious biases or unaware that they have asked an illegal question.
Additionally, questions that appear discriminatory may be legal. For example, “Can you lift a 40lb weight?” or “Do you have responsibilities other than work that will interfere with specific job requirements?” These are acceptable, but only if the job calls for them.
Some questions breach the cusp of acceptability, i.e., “Many of our employees are fresh out of school. Would that bother you?” or “Our clients are predominantly male, what makes you the best candidate to work with them?” or “What are your plans for the future?”
Understandably, such questions may trigger a defensive reaction, but before reacting rashly or responding harshly, take a deep breath. Unless the question is overtly discriminatory or a blatant attempt to poke your inner bear, respond with grace, maintain a professional attitude, and reply in a way that meets your values. Doing so displays a maturity that other candidates may not possess.
Answering With Grace
Loaded Ageism Questions: “When did you graduate from college?” or “We have state of the art technology. Do you know how to use it?” or “How do you feel about working for a younger manager?”
Answer these by reiterating that you are comfortable using new technology but ask which technology they refer to. If you aren’t familiar with a particular tool, say so, but then tell a story of how you’ve quickly learned new programs in the past. Always focus on your strengths and qualifications, work ethic, attitude, and enjoyment of working with diverse, high-performing teams.
Loaded Gender Questions: Interview questions should be the same for men and women, but they often aren’t. For example, “How do you plan to balance work and family?” is rarely asked of men.
Instead of outwardly answering this type of question, deflect and bring the conversation back to your ability to do the job, i.e., “I understand you also want to get to know me as a person, but I feel that particular detail is private. Please know that I am committed to fulfilling the role, and my focus will be on getting the job done.”
Loaded Race Questions: Unless the position has limitations that are restricted by law, asking questions about citizenship is illegal, like this one: “That’s an interesting accent; where do you come from?”
Do your best to judge where the interviewer is coming from. Once again, an untrained interviewer might use it to warm up the relationship with friendly small talk. If you have a good rapport going, answer the inquiry but then deflect the conversation to your qualifications or turn it into a selling opportunity, i.e., perhaps the company is expanding globally, and your international perspective is a future asset to them. By answering with grace, you could potentially save the interviewer embarrassment, which could very well take you to the next level.
As mentioned above, it’s important to honor your personal values – but use caution. If you believe a question is discriminatory, you have several options: politely refuse to answer, challenge the question, terminate the interview, or deflect.
Refusing to answer, terminating the interview, or challenging the question by saying, “Before I answer, how would that information help you in the hiring process?” draws a definitive line in the sand, and chances are you may not hear from the company again.
Understand, too, the difficulty of proving discrimination. Most organizations do not share the reasons they reject a candidate for legal reasons. They may also argue that the individual they hired was the better cultural fit or connected on a grassroots level.
Having said that, if you have sufficient evidence and decide to start a human rights discrimination claim, ensure you keep a written record of what took place, including names, times, places, and witnesses. Prepare to roll up your sleeves and support your case.
Next, speak directly with a human rights officer at the Canadian Human Rights Commission or the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). To recap, most seemingly discriminatory questions are asked innocently and are often driven by unconscious bias. Anticipating them in advance and coming up with responses that artfully deflect or turn them into opportunities will go a long way to getting you hired. If you feel uneasy about the way questions were framed or the demeanor of the interviewer, dig deep and learn all you can about the organization. When the employment offer is made, it will be up to you to decide whether to accept it. Or not.