Thursday, March 17, 2011

Employing Logic

According to some who testified last month in front of the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), there is wide spread discrimination in the hiring process against those who are currently unemployed.  This perceived discrimination has a disparate impact on protected groups, such as blacks and the elderly, the EEOC Board was told, and it must be rooted out and eliminated. 
Suffering from “unemployment” can now be categorized as a disability.  Find me a good lawyer.

“Throughout its 45-year history, the EEOC has identified and remedied discrimination in hiring and remains committed to ensuring job applicants are treated fairly,” EEOC Chair Jacqueline Berrien said. “Today’s meeting gave the commission an important opportunity to learn about the emerging practice of excluding unemployed persons from applicant pools.”

“Emerging” to describe the trend could be accurate, if you define “emerging” as something that has not yet happened, a mere thought but not yet an action.  Yes, there is no reputable data that this type of discrimination is occurring, and it could be just created out of whole cloth from nothing but angry blog posts and the cocktail party complaints of disgruntled and desperate long term job seekers.  The idea of excluding the unemployed from an applicant pool, however, has certain shock appeal in these times of stubbornly high unemployment rates, and reality should never get in the way of a good story.  If unemployment rates are high because of discrimination, at least we’ll have a legal remedy to look forward to…hmmm… 

Hearings like this one at the EEOC give the unemployed a bad name.  The unemployed in this worldview have a condition to be avoided, like the flu or poison ivy.  In this view, employers believe that unemployment can be avoided, much like one can prevent a cold or other infectious diseases through careful planning and precautions.  Unemployment becomes the modern day scarlet U that labels the job applicant as a failure.  Being unemployed must mean he didn’t try hard enough, or that he wasn’t a team player.  Certainly unemployment is an avoidable condition, completely within the control of the “so-called victim”.  We are a nation that prizes the Protestant work ethic, and loss of work is the ultimate failure of the person.  “He’s not working.”  In our sunny corporate climates of positivity-at-all-costs, a person with a history of failure is persona non grata.  Don’t call us, we’ll call you.  Unclean!

I don’t know of any systemic discrimination against those currently unemployed (“You can start tomorrow?  Even better!!!”), but I can see how a negative perception could morph into an actual company practice.  Hiring managers get this.  The unemployed in America didn’t work hard enough, or didn’t get along with their co-workers, or worse – no longer had the requisite job skills to survive in the 21st century workplace.  “If only he was more adaptable, his former employer would have kept him, and we need adaptable employees.  NEXT!”  Of course, this is all unspoken, in much the same way that those with bad haircuts have more difficulty finding work.  It isn’t talked about, but nudge nudge, let’s see some more candidates.  Not illegal, but not smart business, either. 
Workers get this message about avoiding the stain of the unemployed label, too, and they internalize the shame of losing a job.  The savvy job seekers know that the word unemployment is too negative, too depressing for the audience of friends, neighbors and potential employers, so the word has evolved into the more tasteful phrase - “in transition”.  In this word version, one is never “unemployed”, which is something that happens TO someone.  One is merely voluntarily passing through a phase towards a better, more satisfying work life.  At least “in transition” is more honest than yesterday’s favorite euphemism for being out of work for a period of time: “I’ve been doing some consulting work to stay busy.”  HR people everywhere nod and wink when someone explains their most recent employment gap with that excuse.  Everyone with $35 for a website domain license is an entrepreneur and small business owner.  Tell an HR person that you’ve been consulting recently, and our knee jerk response will be, “Keep plugging away.  I’m sure you’ll find something soon.”

Even the expression, “losing a job” makes it sound as if it is something you misplaced, like your car keys, and you only need look harder to find it again.  Even the political rhetoric, particularly on the Right, is explicit in its distain for those not working.  These are the folks responsible for the decline of America, thunder the talk radio voices, and their entitlements represent theft from the employed, hard working Americans.  In this environment, if the unemployed feel discriminated against, that is certainly understandable.  They’re being marginalized every day while Wall Street profits (and their image) have recovered.  What a country.
If the unemployed are being excluded from job applicant pools, and I am not sure they are, these could be some of the reasons.

One of the problems with railing against this kind of perceived subtle discrimination is that the more you fight against it, the worse it can become.  In the process of trying to protect an aggrieved class of individuals, you run the risk of painting them as victims, weaklings who need extra support and consideration – exactly the kind of impression you would prefer not to leave with a potential employer, or Right Wing blogger.  It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat before you have even answered the first interview question.
“It’s important to explore every available legal option to prevent this practice from spreading and cause even more damage at a time when workers are already suffering from record rates of joblessness,” stated one of the professionals at the hearing.

Now I get it.  Who can we sue?  When I read this, I do see a case of Far Left overreach.  Hiring always involves discrimination, the selection of one over another (“he has such discriminating tastes” is a compliment, remember) – you just can’t discriminate for illegal reasons.  Last time I looked, race, gender, ethnicity, disability are all protected statuses.  Being unemployed didn’t make the list.  My ability to discriminate between two closely situated applicants makes me especially good at my job.  Unemployment is not a disability.  It may not be fair, but it is not illegal.

Perhaps if we didn’t tolerate the unemployed being demonized as lazy, entitlement seeking slugs, we wouldn’t have this issue at all.  It is worth a shot. 

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