Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Personnel departments and personality discrimination

As questions about J's future employability nag with growing urgency, I've been chatting with various professionals who specialize in the employability of individuals on the autism spectrum. One person I talked to stressed one of Temple Grandin's longstanding themes: if you're applying to a job at a large corporation, it's absolutely essential to bypass the HR department. Ironically, the very entity whose raison d'être is, in part, to ensure compliance with laws against job discrimination tends itself to discriminate against certain classes of individuals--namely, those who don't interview well. The poorest of these performers, naturally, are smack on the autism spectrum.

In corporate settings (as opposed to academia), HR serves, for some reason, as the initial screener rather than the final arbiter. This means that an autistic individual who, say, is a highly qualified software developer may never have a chance to be considered by the department for which he would actually be working--and which might actually want to hire him.

With more and more firms using informal interviews that seek "cultural fit," things are harder than ever--even for those who are only marginally socially awkward. While this may make for a more "collegial" workplace with lots of camaraderie and after-hours socializing, it's ultimately bad news, not just for neurodiversity, but for workplace productivity and creativity. Just like K12 chools, HR departments are systematically bypassing real talent; over-emphasizing non-cognitive "21st century" skills at the expense of timeless skills like reading, writing, and quantitative reasoning; and confusing social savvy with the ability to collaborate professionally.

Should corporations never discriminate against people on the basis of personality? Ironically, the personality type that thrives best in interviews--particularly the informal ones that are so popular today--is the type that is potentially the most toxic of all: the narcissistic, manipulating backstabber who charms his superiors, undermines his equals, and takes credit for the work of his underlings, advancing through the corporation and undermining morale and productivity.

So, actually, social skills do matter very much in this century (and a few others). But not in the ways that most HR departments think they do.


Auntie Ann said...

It's not just at the adult level. We tried to move our kid to a different school for junior high, and he had a resume on paper which should have been sufficient to be accepted, but we think the interview killed his chance. They want outgoing and confident kids, and that's not who he is. Part of me thinks this is the way they deal with bullying: by not accepting kids who will always be natural targets.

Anonymous said...

Have you read this article about Google:


"Tricia Prickett and Neha Gada-Jain, two psychology students at the University of Toledo, collaborated with their professor Frank Bernieri and reported in a 2000 study that judgments made in the first 10 seconds of an interview could predict the outcome of the interview.

The problem is, these predictions from the first 10 seconds are useless."

I think that you're right that a lot of interviewing practices disadvantage certain personalities (you focus on autism, but shy, nervous, anxious, introverted, slow speakers, . . . . are also disadvantaged). And, many of those traits might be uncorrelated with the job that needs to be done.

On the other hand, the ability to communicate and work with others is being shown to be an important part of successful performance of many jobs, including the ones that include significant technical skills. A possibility is that we are seeing the ramping up of requirements for excellence in the workplace along the same lines that one sees for college. The availability of the tools to acquire a broader array of skills has turned those skills into a requirement.


Anonymous said...

"On the other hand, the ability to communicate and work with others is being shown to be an important part of successful performance of many jobs, including the ones that include significant technical skills"

Where does this notion come from that technical people can't communicate? In my experience, it's the opposite. Technical people communicate just fine. It's the marketing, HR, executive people who spout buzzwords and lies and apparently think they're communicating. They aren't.