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.