If you have only read modern media, you might be forgiven for thinking that discrimination, particularly in the employment arena is the very definition of a bad thing.  All recruiters should be aware of legislation covering this subject, and ensure their professional activities do not make them liable to either prosecution of even criticism.

However, I believe it needs re-stating that to discriminate is merely to be able to distinguish between two different individuals based upon a set of criteria.  It is the specific criteria used which would give rise to this being either fair or unfair discrimination.  We should all be aware that expressing a preference for candidates based on their race, religion, colour, or disabilities is profoundly wrong, and is clearly unfair discrimination. Such criteria, and more, are rightly protected against by legislation.

Conversely though, there have been cases brought against employers to compel them to recruit a candidate who is definitively, and measurably, the best suited for a particular job.  Candidates who, upon hearing of the background of a successful rival for a job, want to contest the decision, as they believe the employer has chosen wrongly. They were clearly the most qualified person, and must have therefore been unfairly discriminated against.

So how do employers protect themselves in this situation, where they are called upon to defend their decisions, and the decision-making process?  Should they even have to?  Certainly, if they are accused of unfair and illegal discrimination, then of course there is a case to answer.  But in what circumstances would it be judged to be fair to discriminate?  Are employers, or recruiters, able to exercise discretion in not selecting the empirically proven, best qualified candidate for the position?

The entire application and interview process is of course an exercise in discrimination.  The employers set the criteria for the job, and invite applications that meet those requirements. In some cases, the contents of the job advert can be held against the employer who, for example, asked for a degree level qualification, but subsequently offered the position to someone without that academic achievement.  The interview itself would have no purpose, if it wasn’t to assess and then discriminate between candidates, based on all the factors necessary for selection.  Given that the measurable stuff, such as qualifications, years of experience, and previous work history have all been covered by the CV and application forms, then primary reason for interview is to assess the person themselves, and distinguish between competing candidates.  Of course all of these factors are usually brought together in an arbitrary and unscientific manner. The combination of the contents of the CV, the character of the candidate, and how those ingredients could fit with the employer’s wants and needs for their organisation would be difficult to set out in a job specification, and absolutely impossible to automate.  This is why we have people assessing other people.

It was pointed out to me last week, that the use of personality profiling in the selection process, could leave employers open to accusations of unfair discrimination. They stated that it would be unfair for an employer to exercise a preference for a particular personality type, when that could preclude other candidates who had a justifiable expectation of a successful application.  But what then is the interview process itself, if not an assessment of an individual’s personality, amongst other things?  If an employer has benchmarked the best of their current employees, and found the optimum personality type for each of their design, sales, accounts or manufacturing roles, then would it really be wrong to utilise that knowledge when recruiting for new staff?

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Stephen O'Donnell is a lifelong recruiter, internet enthusiast, fadgadget and peripatetic writer.

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