Is “Poise” a Qualification or a Subjective Assessment Prone to Bias?

Qualifications normally are an  important consideration in discrimination cases.

In recent weeks, however, the EEOC has ruled in two age discrimination cases that subjective assessments  outweigh objective qualifications.

In both cases, Carlton M. Hadden, Jr. director of the EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations, held that federal agencies did not engage in age discrimination when they ignored the superior qualifications of older applicants and hired younger, seemingly far less qualified workers. The EEOC, which has declined to comment, upheld both decisions.

In one of the cases, Hadden ruled that an African-American female in her 20s was more qualified for the position of lead police officer at a veteran’s center in Dallas than a 48-year-old white male who was then serving as lead police detective at the center.  The male had 20 years of high-level experience in policing; the female had served a stint in the Army military police.

Hadden said the female candidate “arguably has more experience in the intangible areas sought by the (hiring panel), such as poise, compassion, leadership, and the ability to cope with stress…” But are “poise” and “compassion” really “qualifications” or are they subjective assessments that are subject to cultural bias? And why doesn’t an officer who is in a leadership position show more leadership potential than an individual who is not? These decisions raise questions about whether the EEOC is implementing its own vision of affirmative action rather than federal law.

In the past, courts have looked skeptically at subjective assessments in hiring  because research shows that hiring managers often harbor subconscious bias.

An older candidate may not seem poised if members of the hiring panel harbor bias that older people are ugly, sickly or lacking in enthusiasm.

The issue is important because today there is rarely direct evidence of  discrimination. Plaintiffs must show that the employer’s non-discriminatory explanation for a negative employment action was a pretext for discrimination.  It’s hard to disprove an employer who says the other candidate had more poise and compassion.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 discussed how courts should assess  “plainly superior qualifications”  in the  case of  Ash, et al. v. Tyson Foods, Inc. The U.S. Supreme Court clearly was not talking about  the employer’s subjective assessment of the candidates – that’s what the Court was concerned about.

In the Ash case, the plaintiffs, two African-Americans, argued that Tyson used job qualifications that were not required by company policy to exclude them and justify promoting two white males. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta dismissed their complaint, ruling they had ailed to raise an inference of discrimination.

The 11th Circuit ruled that a plaintiff must show the disparity in qualifications was “so apparent as virtually to jump off the page and slap you in the face.”  The Supreme Court rejected this standard, calling it “”unhelpful” and “ambiguous.”

In the Ash decision, the U.S. Supreme Court referred approvingly to far less stringent standards than the one articulated by the 11th Circuit. The Court noted a federal appeals court in California ruled  that a pretext of discrimination can be found where a candidate was not hired despite  “clearly”superior qualifications.” The Court cited a ruling by a federal appeals court in the District of Columbia that a fact-finder might infer pretext if a “reasonable employer would have found the plaintiff to be significantly better qualified for the job.”

Hadden did not cite any legal authority to justify equating subjective assessments with objective qualifications. The EEOC has declined to comment.

The EEOC routinely rejects subjective assessments in race and sex discrimination cases. Why is there a different standard for age discrimination?

The other age discrimination case dismissed by the EEOC in August condoned hiring workers based on “cultural fit.” This concept is so widely regarded as an invitation for bias that it is now considered taboo even in the business community.

The bottom line is that the EEOC is locked in a time warp, despite the fact that it was designated by Congress to implement the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and should be in the forefront on the issue of equal rights. And, since EEOC cases are secret, we have no way of knowing how many older workers have had their cases dismissed on the basis of reasoning that follows no legal precedent and appears to be the equivalent of a whim.

Behavioral Design Algorithms Show Promise and Peril in Hiring

A new technology has the potential to both reduce and exacerbate illegal bias in hiring.

The New York Times has reported that two start-up hiring platforms, Applied and Pymetrics, have created algorithms using  artificial intelligence and neuroscience games that can level the playing field for gender, ethnic and socioeconomic representation.

Age discrimination also is illegal but it was not mentioned. This despite considerable evidence  showing that employers currently are systematically discriminating against older workers by using computer software to screen out their resumes and divert them to a digital trash can.  Research shows that older women are the most severely affected by hiring discrimination.

Spokespersons for Applied and Pymetrics said behavioral design algorithms  are capable of analyzing hiring factors that are more predictive of performance and less biased than traditional resume screening tools. The algorithms are tweaked until men and women and people of different ethnic backgrounds get similar scores to qualify for hire. A spokesperson for Applied cited a large test in which over half of the people that were hired would not have been were it not for the platform. A  Pymetrics spokesperson said the company has been highly successful in improving gender, ethnic and socioeconomic representation for clients like Accenture and Unilever.

The behavioral design companies say the technology is equally capable, in the wrong hands, of magnifying hiring bias.

[Read more…]

EEOC Secrecy Rule Hides Procedural Irregularities and Gross Unfairness

Note: About a week after this story was written, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against a Texas television station because it allegedly failed to consider qualifications when it rejected a 42-year-old  female applicant for a position as a weather person. This lawsuit completely contradicts the EEOC’s decision in the case below and raises questions about what the EEOC’s position is with respect to qualifications.

A recent decision by the EEOC raises questions about whether the secrecy surrounding the EEOC’s handling of discrimination complaints hides serious procedural irregularities and basic unfairness.

EEOC spokeswoman Kimberly Smith-Brown has said that federal law “prohibits EEOC employees from confirming or denying the existence of charge filings, investigations or administrative resolutions.  The only time information about a specific case becomes public is if EEOC files a lawsuit against the employer, which is usually a last resort.” This means that complaints and documents associated with the EEOC’s adjudication of complaints are secret – except in the rare instance when the EEOC files a lawsuit or a complainant objects publicly (and someone listens) to the EEOC’s handling of her complaint.

The EEOC’s secrecy rule stands in sharp contrast to the openness of the federal court system. If a complaint is filed in federal court, it is public and so are the documents associated with the complaint, unless the judge enters an order to seal the file. That order can be challenged by the media. Public access to court records serves to insure the integrity of the court system. The EEOC’s closed door rule leaves the public in the dark about the basis for complaints, why the Administrative Law Judge ruled the way h/she did, the context for the OFO’s decision on an appeal of the ALJ’s ruling and why the EEOC chose to affirm or reject the OFO’s decision. With secrecy, the public has no way to insure the integrity of the EEOC’s handling of complaints.

Not only does secrecy fail to insure integrity at the EEOC but it clearly benefits discriminatory corporations and businesses. Their customers never find out about their illegal acts and neither do their employees, who might put two-and-two together and file their own discrimination complaints.  Complainants, who are almost always individuals, may prefer to have their name remain confidential because the mere fact they filed a complaint may make it difficult for them to find new employment. However, this preference can be accommodated through the use of a pseudonym, which is a practice the EEOC already employs when it publishes a precedential decision.

 Secrecy allows the EEOC to evade accountability for misconduct and discriminatory rulings. 

[Read more…]

Support for American Workers is Hard to Find

Who is standing up for the rights of American workers?

GOP President Donald Trump and the GOP-led U.S. Congress seem to be determined to eliminate worker rights rather than to expand them. Trump has reversed a bevy of pro-labor measures that former Democratic President Barack Obama enacted on his own without Congressional backing. Meanwhile, workers continue to seethe about mostly Democratic trade policies that sent American jobs to other countries.

Labor unions are barely hanging on, despite the fact that unions pioneered many of the employment benefits that workers take for granted today. In 2016, the union rate for private sector workers was 6.4 percent – down from 20.1 percent in 1983.  Organized labor is currently battling a potentially crippling effort by Trump and the GOP to prevent unions from requiring nonmembers to pay representation fees.

It may be an understatement to say that advocacy of worker rights  does not appear to be high on the agendas of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and US. Department of Labor.

Under the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama,  the EEOC shifted its focus away from filing lawsuits and prosecuting employers who engaged in illegal discrimination. Instead, the EEOC is focused on providing free dispute resolution services to these very same employers. Mediation is often a lousy deal for discrimination victims, who walk away with a pittance to compensate for the loss of a decent job, but it’s always a great deal for employers, who avoid potentially catastrophic fees and damages stemming from a lawsuit.  Also, mediation is completely secret so other potential litigants are kept in the dark.  Meanwhile, the EEOC has for years ignored one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our day – blatant and epidemic age discrimination in hiring that is particularly devastating to older women, who suffer twice the poverty rate of men in their old age.  The EEOC received more than 20,000 age discrimination complaints in 2016; it  filed only TWO lawsuits with “age discrimination claims.” [Read more…]