In a perfect world there would be no discrimination in society, the work environment, within companies, or in the actual hiring process. We have laws in place to protect such instances from occurring, as federal law prohibits any form of discrimination against workers for race, color, religion or disability – but do they really protect?
A number of years ago I recall interviewing a candidate for a management position at our San Francisco Financial District location. His resume warranted a call and a phone interview, which he passed.
Accepting the invitation for an in-person interview, he arrived in a wheelchair. It wasn’t the type of wheelchair one uses when you’ve broken or lost a leg; it was an all-in-one motorized job and the man sitting in the seat was rather tiny and truly handicapped, likely from various birth defects. He was legally protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, at least in a perfect world.
This put me in an awkward position knowing that the job consisted of not only navigating around an office and showroom floor, it also included demonstrating computer hardware and some lifting. I had to be very careful in what I said and how it was said, and to be honest, from a technical standpoint, he was qualified for the job. The company, which no longer exists, failed to fully detail the job requirements to include lifting and moving boxes containing computers and related products and taking physical inventory of these products.
This gets to the study that some MIT economists conducted that show the employment numbers for disabled Americans is declining because, in part, companies appear to be wary of potential lawsuits. How much does a company need to alter its workspace and environment for a person with a disability? What if that person cannot complete all the tasks? Does the company release the individual and risk a lawsuit, or simply live with the mistake and hope he or she finds another job?
In my case I was fortunate to have a large pool of qualified applicants from which to choose. Unfortunately, this brings up a huge issue – does a company do the right thing and hire the best qualified individual regardless of physical attributes, or do they play it safe?
Companies I’ve worked for have been victims of frivolous lawsuits from a woman who was fired because she was consistently late to work and got into regular shouting matches with her soon-to-be ex-husband over the phone on company time in the office. She sued for sexual harassment. Her lawyer eventually dropped her due to lack of any evidence.
Another suit was filed by a salesman who was habitually late due to a self-diagnosed sleeping disorder. He sued claiming racial discrimination. He was Chinese-American and the company was Taiwanese-owned, so that didn’t work out too well for him.
A Human Resource professional, who is also a friend, told me the way to weed out potential headaches is done in the resume review process. They look for anything that may go against the culture of their company: the mention of any religious, ethnic or racial fraternities or clubs in school are a red flag, as are listed political or environmental affiliations. Some companies, from what I understand, also go so far as to eliminate “older” people from consideration because they may not fit the company’s youthful culture, may be unwilling or unable to work long hours, or put a burden on the healthcare plan. Too many lines on a resume and dates on college degrees are dead giveaways in getting a rough estimate as to an applicant’s age, as youth equals less expensive in many cases.