When the Bias Is in the Hiring

Article excerpt

NEW YORK -- For managers learning the basics of employment law, there are the usual methods. Reading. Taking notes.

At Tower Records, they do things a bit differently. Every two weeks, the human resources staff at its headquarters in Sacramento, Calif., dress up as game pieces and assemble on a giant game board that covers a conference room floor. Groups of Tower store managers then answer questions about a hiring situation.

A correct answer, and a staff member takes a step forward on the board. A wrong one, and everyone in the room discusses the best legal response. The more correct answers, the closer trainees get to the final space, "team leader of the year." "Even though it seems a little crazy with the Alice-in-Wonderland- like proportions, it works," said Renee Gromacki, Tower's human resource manager for employee relations. Since the training programs began four years ago, she said, the number of grievances filed companywide has decreased. Tower now requires all managers and supervisors to play the legal-training game. Tower's program illustrates companies' widening efforts to train managers in the ways of hiring and dismissal. And that training is likely to become even more important for employers. Starting as early as this spring, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission plans to use undercover "testers" -- pairs of job applicants who have equivalent qualifications but who differ in characteristics like gender, race, disability or age -- to uncover discrimination in hiring. The decision, announced in December, marks the first time that the commission is actively focusing on hiring, a field in which bias is particularly hard to prove. Applicants often never know the reasons for their rejection or who else may have applied for the job. About 8 percent of the roughly 80,000 cases the commission receives annually contend some form of hiring discrimination. In contrast, 47 percent deal with discharges or complaints of bias and retaliation after dismissals. The commission will use two private groups -- the Fair Employment Council of Greater Washington and the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago -- to conduct the tests, which will focus initially on entry- level jobs; results are expected by next winter. Dianna Johnston, the commission's liaison to the program, said the agency was more interested in learning about how discrimination occurs rather than about which companies discriminate. Even so, she said, if it finds patterns of unequal treatment, it will pursue them. The tester program worries some business groups, which view it as akin to entrapment. The National Federation of Independent Business in Washington has called the plan "reprehensible" and "misleading." Barry Lawrence, a spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va., which represents personnel directors at thousands of companies, said testers tend to connote "covert operations." "It doesn't seem to be a very ethical practice," he said. Companies also say that interviewing fake job candidates will increase their costs and time spent on hiring. The commission sees it differently. "It's not going to be anything more than what employers normally do and we have no built-in assumptions about what we're going to find," said Ellen J. Vargyas, the commission's legal counsel. Even so, the plan is already having an impact. "Since December, we've had double the number of requests for training in hiring," said Garry Mathiason, senior partner with Littler, Mendelson, Fastiff, Tichy & Mathiason of San Francisco, which specializes in employment law. …