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Walking on HR eggshells

Before I joined my current company, I worked for a small firm in San Francisco where part of my role involved interviewing people to join our team. Before I was allowed to interview anyone though, I had to go through human resources training about the types of questions I was and was not allowed to ask potential candidates.

Questions to steer clear of included asking an applicant what their religious preferences are, whether or not they smoke, or whether they plan to have kids. This made sense to me, since these facts have nothing to do with whether that person could have performed the job or not. But as I read further, some questions on the “forbidden” list absolutely stumped me, since they seemed so innocent. Left to my own devices, I’d probably ask some of these no-no questions within the first five minutes of meeting someone:

“That’s such a beautiful engagement ring! When are you getting married?” (Not allowed)

“You’ve got such an unusual accent. Where are you from?” (Not allowed)

“Wow, I know how hard it is to work here as a foreigner. I’m on a South African passport. So you’re from X — are you on a visa or are you a US citizen?” (Not allowed)

I’d ask the last two questions in particular because I am interested in how other non-citizens are able to work here. More than this though, I think the best way to find out if someone is the right fit for a company or not is through small talk; those off-the-cuff conversations that happen between “official” interview questions and that go a long way towards revealing someone’s true personality. This was especially important in my small company, in which there weren’t multiple departments to move around in if personality clashes arose. Armed with my list of illegal questions however, I found it difficult to have an easy conversation for fear of asking the wrong thing.

To clarify, it’s not that it’s illegal to ask these questions; it is only illegal if you’re found to have made a hiring decision that discriminates based on their answers. The issue of protecting minority rights is so inflammatory in the US, however, that everyone is walking on eggshells, so what used to be considered a perfectly acceptable question just isn’t anymore. Even though the concept of affirmative action has been around in the US for almost 50 years, people are still acutely sensitive to being seen as discriminatory. Added to this is the fact that this is a sue-happy country, so there’s a huge fear of being slapped with a lawsuit if someone is not hired. Many companies here won’t even follow up with a candidate who lists their date of birth or nationality on their CV, for fear of it blowing up in their faces later on if that person doesn’t get the job.

I now realise why when I first interviewed for a job here I was not asked where I was from. I thought it was strange, but then I reasoned that San Francisco must be like London, where people are extremely familiar with South African accents. I now realise that it wasn’t that no one wondered where I was from — it was simply that they weren’t allowed to ask.

In some ways, I can understand the reasons for avoiding these kinds of questions. But the paranoia of potential lawsuits here has led companies to exercise such extreme caution that, at least in my experience anyway, the interview ends up feeling forced. This makes it harder for the person who is hiring to get a genuine feel for who this person really is and whether they’d be right for the company or not. Also, on a more basic level, if you can’t ask someone where they are from anymore, what does that say about this country’s fundamental human-to-human interaction?

The informal “chat” interview as we know it is fading fast here; it’s a relic of a more trusting age before Stella Liebeck decided to sue McDonalds when she burned herself with their coffee. It’s a pity though, because although there will always be exceptions, in general I think that if you give employees the benefit of the doubt that they’ll make the right hiring decision, the company will be more efficient. And in the long run, that’s of more benefit to everyone involved.