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How to Deal

Are Minority Candidates Better Suited for Certain Jobs?

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By Lily Garcia
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 11, 2009; 12:00 AM

I work for a very small office and I recently asked for a raise. My co-worker then put in her two weeks' notice, and I let my boss know that I'm interested in her job (pays better, perfectly aligned with my career goals).

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I'm more than qualified for the position, but I was told earlier that they might want to hire a minority candidate (the program works with minorities, even though I am going into a career that also works primarily with minorities...) isn't that discriminatory? Not to mention the fundamental problems with saying that only people of certain races can work with the underprivileged...

How should I proceed? I've only heard back that my boss knows I'm interested and she's talking with our leadership about next steps. Should I address the comment?

You might be a great fit for the job, but I think it is wise of your employer to look beyond internal candidates to make sure that they have explored a range of options and that their hiring decision is based on solid intelligence about the candidate pool. In so doing, your employer should select the best qualified candidate for the job, irrespective of race or ethnicity.

I understand from your question that you work for a program that serves underprivileged members of the community, and that a good number of your clients are racial or ethnic minorities. It is not far-fetched for your employer to conclude that hiring a minority employee for the position would benefit the organization. They assume that such a person might help to put clients at ease. If they are in distress, reasons your employer, your clients might feel more comfortable speaking with someone who looks like them, who perhaps shares some of their background and life experiences and therefore will be better able to empathize with their situation.

When I put it that way, it sounds benign. Understandable. But making such generalizations about a job applicant's race or ethnicity is grossly unfair to the applicant and harmful to the organization and its clients. If the leaders of your organization allow stereotypes to inform their hiring decisions, they will jump to conclusions and skip over the careful, probing questions that get to the heart of whether someone is truly qualified. Recruiting and hiring, done correctly, is hard work. It involves thorough analysis of the job and the skills and qualifications that most accurately predict success. It takes fairness and consistency in the applicant screening and interview process to ensure that everyone is judged against the same selection criteria. When the process works, employers are able to develop rigorous candidate profiles based on which they can make confident hiring decisions.

The leaders of your organization should closely examine their assumptions about what being a minority indicates about a person's ability to do the job. They might find that their impulse to favor a minority in the hiring process is based upon positive attributes such as a capacity for empathy, the ability to put people at ease, and experience in dealing with the difficult situations that your clients confront. All three of these are legitimate selection criteria that can and should be included in the job description.

The best qualified applicant could turn out to be a racial or ethnic minority. And it might very well be that this person's experiences as a minority in our society have helped to prepare him or her for the challenges of the job. Making that assumption, however, without giving the candidate a chance to demonstrate his or her professional competency, is wrong.

It also could be illegal if your employer is also categorically excluding non-minorities from serious consideration. However, I do not think it will help your case for the promotion much if you accuse your employer of breaking the law. My recommendation is that you do the best possible job of presenting your qualifications for the position. Do not take it for granted that your employer truly understands your potential. Instead, pursue your candidacy as aggressively as if you were applying from the outside. Polish your resume, make a list of your accomplishments, and write a compelling letter explaining the reasons why they should pick you.

Later on, after the selection process for the job is over, you should think about whether you want to raise concerns regarding your employer's earlier comment. If you did not get the job, of course, your concerns might be dismissed as sour grapes. If you do get the promotion, you might be taken more seriously. But I caution you not to expect big changes in any event. Your employer's stated preference for hiring a minority is based upon deeply ingrained stereotypes that most people are afraid to confront.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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