March 6, 2009

The right fit

Employers should look beyond superficial qualities in hiring staff.

You are an employer, and a lanky, pale, unattractive man walks into your office for an interview. You notice immediately, as one of the man’s close acquaintances once observed, that “[n]o element of [his] character was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.” Or as another former co-worker of his once noted, “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” Because you ask the man about his life and he is unusually honest, he informs you that a particularly brutal bout of depression once led him to submit himself to the care of a medical doctor, and that he has spoken often to his friends of committing suicide.

What is your gut feeling? Would the man fit in at your organization? Could he muster the passion necessary to do his job well? Although the man in your office is clearly qualified on paper and plainly knowledgeable and articulate, the intangibles seem to weigh overwhelmingly against him. You deny him the job.

And so, Abraham Lincoln’s job search continues.

Those who think that more modern presidents of the United States are the only people ever employed not because of their objective abilities but because they are good to have a beer with have obviously never experienced very many job interviews or understood what most of them are really about. Employers will argue that their only aim is to use “subjective criteria” to determine if a job candidate is a “good fit” for their organization. But let’s be honest: These are just euphemisms for prejudice and discrimination.

Why is it any more acceptable to judge that a person lacks passion for a job because he speaks slowly or smiles thinly than to label someone a shady character just because he wears a turban? Is it really much less superficial to definitively appraise a man’s character by his behavior during an hour-long interview than to do so by the color of his skin? Sure, a person as depressed as Abraham Lincoln is probably less likely than an upbeat person to be able to overcome great challenges like, say, guiding a nation through a horrific war. But while we’re dealing in probabilities, it is also true that a black American is much more likely to be a criminal than a white American and your friend Mustafa much more likely than your neighbor Sam to be your future hijacker. Yet employers are ordered by law not to care.

Of course, not every relevant datum can fit on a résumé. Sometimes discrimination based on traits that can only be intuited and not measured is an essential part of discrimination based on competence. No one should expect, for example, a terribly shy person to be considered for a job as a press secretary.

But often, subjective criteria are merely bigoted criteria, unwarranted discrimination against unwanted personalities. Likes choosing likes is not an acceptable modus operandi no matter how much better similar people might seem to function as a team. If “fitting in” is a valid criterion, why can’t a bunch of whites decide that they have the right to reject a qualified black person for a job opening merely because they are more comfortable and work better free from the company of the dark-skinned?

And if objective criteria aren’t enough to decide? Flip a coin. Better to let chance do the discriminating than one’s own petty biases. It is the height of hubris to imagine that one can divine based on intuition who among an equally qualified group of people is best for a particular job.

Choosing by chance when objectivity is insufficient is not only fairer; it’s smarter, because it is more likely to ensure a diversity of values and perspectives. But if you, as an employer, prefer a nation run at every level of its infrastructure by the charming and the getters-along and the glad-handing, then by all means, don’t give Lincoln a chance. Trust your gut.

Nathan Bloom is a fourth-year in the College majoring in NELC.