The Question I Can’t Ask

As a conscientious employer, mindful of the law, I know that I’m not to ask a female candidate for employment if she plans to have children.  (Indeed, I’m not to even recognize whether the candidate is male or female!)  I also am not to ask a candidate, of whatever gender, what his or her plans are five years hence, for various reasons, one of which is that it may be construed as a roundabout way of asking the forbidden question about children.

That’s the law, and I accept it.

But it has consequences, some of them unpleasant.

For some jobs, the employee already has 90% of the skills necessary to do the work when hired.  After some briefing, the employee can be immediately productive, and then can learn the other 10% through a few days’ experience.  For a job like that, the question of whether the employee plans to have children is thoroughly irrelevant.

But some jobs turn on skills and knowledge that aren’t common in the population. A company could hire someone out of college, and invest the time and money to develop his or her talent, including the cost of occasional do-overs occasioned by rookie mistakes.  But it’s senseless to make such an investment without having some sense that the employee is going to stay around long enough for the effort to pay off.

Which brings us back to the forbidden question about having children.  We’re not allowed to say this, but there are some inconvenient truths:

  • Women have babies, and men don’t.
  • As a consequence of having babies, women often leave the labor force, at least for a time.
  • It isn’t fair to hold a new mother to a commitment she made before she experienced the emergency of parenthood.

If employers were able to consider these factors openly, some women would likely not get hired for jobs they were qualified to do, because their potential employers would assess that they might not stay around long enough to make the effort worthwhile.

Since that’s an unacceptable outcome, the law forbids employers from considering whether female candidates might have children.  But the rules, more broadly, prevent employers from assessing the likelihood of a candidate remaining on the job for, say, two years (or whatever duration is relevant to the employer).

This represents a new risk foisted onto employers.  But the employers will not simply accept the risk.  They will adapt their procedures and processes to compensate.  And that’s where the consequences come in.

A big company can invest in ‘process:’ your job is not defined as whatever it takes to accomplish the mission, but what is contained in the four corners of the job specification.  And if you’re qualified under the specification, you’re qualified to do the job.  And anything you know that isn’t in the specification isn’t part of the job, even if you know that it’s been part of the job for eons.  The effect is to devalue experience over a very low minimum, and make employees replaceable.

But that can backfire: in too much of my work, I find myself dealing with the same people I dealt with 20-25 years ago, and we’re both doing the same things we did back then.  The older hands from another time end up doing the bits and pieces not contained in the four corners of the specification, but still needed to accomplish the mission.

A small company can foreswear the general employment market, and hire only people the owner knows, or perhaps a ‘friend of a friend.’  That addresses the owner’s immediate problem, but doesn’t do very much for the employment situation overall.  Or maybe the owner doesn’t hire anyone new at all, makes do with what staff he has, and toughs it out through the busy parts.

Do I mean, from all of this, that the woes in the job market are solely due to an inability of employers to ask a question that, in most cases, shouldn’t be asked?  Hardly.  But it’s one among a thousand rules that, while possibly well-intentioned, end up making life and the job market difficult for everyone.

5 thoughts on “The Question I Can’t Ask”

  1. One of the requirements of my job is shift work. This is a 12-hour shift that goes from 5:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. or from 5:30 p.m. until 6 a.m. Were I to rewrite my job description, I would add a requirement for a minimum of 50% shift work, split equally between day and night shift . Currently, people are told in the job announcement that shift work will be required, but not how much or what the hours will be.

    I believe that we can teach you how the plant works and the administrative aspects of my job, but you have to have the temperament to stand shift, because it does take over your life. It does help to have had exposure to multiple engineering disciplines. My opinion is that people will underestimate the effect that shift work has on them, particularly if they have never done it before.

    We had a candidate for a position equivalent to mine who would be new to government come to the plant a few days ago. We spent about two hours on the plant tour, and didn’t even cover the entire plant. He asked good questions, and I would be inclined to hire him. We stopped by my cubicle on the way to a discussion with other engineers from which I was excluded, and he asked me, “What about shift work?” I said, “I do best with shift when I cook my own food and pack my own lunches, because there isn’t much in the way of food available here. You also have to plan for a 14-hour day because you are here 12 1/2 hours , and I live on the north side of town, so it’s about 40 minutes each way. I could have afforded to live on the west side of town (which is nicer) , but I wanted that extra 40 minutes per day that I would save from the shorter commute to do other things.”

    Even if someone says that they are willing do shift work, they may not be able to do it or may not want to do it on the schedule assigned. I would prefer 4 on-4-off-3-on-3 off rather than 4 on-7-off-3-on, which is the normal shift schedule. I dislike having that big lump of hours at the end of the pay period, and my experience is that I can’t treat the 7 days off like vacation time and take a trip, or I will be really tired when I come back to work. I traded to get my desired schedule on nights, and I recovered from night shift a lot faster than usual. There would have to be complimentary schedules that still give you a lump of hours at the end of the pay period, but you would have it only half as often.

    Other aspects of the job are ignored at our peril. Federal employees talk about “other duties as assigned”, which usually makes up about 20% of the job description. It sounds like you have problems with people who can’t go beyond the letter of their job description or who have uncommon skills.

    We have already lost two of the people who are supposed to do shift work: one has cancer and is medically retiring, and the other took another job about six months ago. We have funding to hire up to 11 people, but we have only six, which put us on a two weeks on shift, one week back in the office schedule. If you want to take time off, you have to take it when you are in the office. The guy who came for the interview a couple of days ago is the first person who we have brought to site for an interview.

    I like shift work because it is a clear task. I might not know what is planned for me on a given day, such as when I was called on to do a systems test that I did not know was planned, but my reputation in the plant is that I’ll do what I can to help out and push the work through.

  2. The question that you REALLY can’t ask is what the person’s work habits are. Will they step up to do something extra or work to their job description? Are they willing to learn on the job and use what they learn?

  3. Here’s the problem, not all women leave the workforce and not all women have or want kids. I get the question because of the women who do but many more don’t.

  4. Any place that asks illegal, and/or dumb questions is run by ‘dummies’! And, who would want to work for ‘dummies’?! Except maybe ventriloquists?!!! LOL. !!!

  5. Well, it’s obviously better for a business to obey the law. But my point is that when the law makes it difficult to properly assess potential employees, employers will adapt in ways that comply with the law, but aren’t helpful to those seeking employment.

    Another example is that a business can be sued for ‘retaliation’ if it sends out a bad reference for a former employee, if the employee believes the bad reference to be the result of discrimination, or the employee’s asserting his rights under law. Note the word ‘believes:’ the employee’s case may or may not have any merit, but he can still sue anyway.

    So many employees issue strict ‘name, rank and serial number’ references: ‘Mr. X worked at Acme Enterprises, LLC as an Anvil Forge Operator from 15 January 2013 to 24 May 2014.’ But that doesn’t really tell me, considering Mr. X as a candidate for employment, if he was any good at it.

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