I run a large department for a major retailer. A few months ago, we had an opening for a lead position and none of our existing employees were eligible (because they did not want to work the schedule involved). The employees are all in their early 20s and most are in school. One of the candidates was a woman who was probably in her 50s (I never checked her age. My guess is based on her appearance and the dates of her past jobs). We ended up hiring a male candidate who had previously worked in the same position at one of our other stores. The woman was the first runner up. The problem is that when I interviewed the woman, I asked if she thought she would have a problem supervising a group of people so much younger. (She had a good answer and this was not the reason she was not hired). She filed an age discrimination charge with the local civil rights commission. It was dismissed, but now I am wondering. Was it wrong to ask that question? How should I have asked it to stay out of potential trouble?
You did fine, at least compared to moi. I would have asked if she could relate to people born in the age of Bill Clinton when she has vivid personal memories of Teddy Roosevelt. My history might be off, but you get the general idea. Then again, it looks as though you were channeling my evil self a little bit by telling the candidate that the employees were “so much” younger than her. Kudos to you!
— Evil Skippy
You had a legitimate concern. However, based on my years of interviewing and investigations, I know how easy it is for candidates and interviewers to misunderstand each other and reach inaccurate conclusions. Although your question was legitimate, by emphasizing the “younger” part you created a perception with the candidate that being older is the reason she was not selected. Fortunately, her perception is not evidence of actual discrimination.
One of my personal rules while interviewing is that I do not mention age or refer to staff (or applicants) as “older” or “younger”. I also do not mention folks’ religion, race, sexual orientation or any other of the protected categories. The mere fact of bringing them up can cause candidates to conclude that you are basing your decision on such factors – which of course is not legal.
Instead of asking a candidate if she could work well in the new department because everyone else is so much younger (or more spiritual or more gay or more Hispanic), I would ask the candidate to tell me about the groups she has worked with (or supervised) in the past. I would follow-up with questions asking how she handled supervising people who have different backgrounds than her and how she managed working with diverse work groups. For example, I might have asked, “How do you handle supervising people who have substantially less experience working in retail than you do?” and “What are your greatest challenges/strengths when supervising people who may be new to the workforce?” There is no need to break it down to older and younger; you just need to use your brain to think of creative questions. (Notice that my questions can’t be answered with a mere yes or no. That’s the goal – the more you get them to talk, the better information you will have for making your choice).
I am not saying it is illegal or discriminatory to ask a candidate if they could work well with younger (or older) employees. It’s just not very smart or effective because anyone with a minimal amount of sense is going to respond that they can.
Readers – what would you have asked this candidate?
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