Is HR Helping Employer Skirt Discrimination Laws? We Can Do Better

The Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf was recently featured on the ABC series What Would You Do?, a show that uses hidden cameras and actors to set up scenes that people react to (sort of like Candid Camera). In this episode, it showed two deaf students who were trying to apply for a job at a coffee shop and getting turned down publicly:

Nearly 5 million viewers watched two actresses – students from Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf – apply for a job at a coffee shop in New Jersey. The managers, also actors, immediately told the girls they wouldn’t be hired because they were deaf. Actual patrons witnessing the discrimination gave stares and rolled their eyes, but very few spoke up to defend the girls.

More troubling – as proven by the dozens of comments on the ABC website following the show – were the comments offered by three customers who are human resource professionals. They told the manager essentially how to legally discriminate, by accepting the applications but not to call them back.

The video of the segment is sure to send shivers down the spine of every decent HR professional out there.

These HR pros are misguided

Get a load of some of these quotes from the show:

  • “I probably wouldn’t have done that. Only because I would have taken her application and then wouldn’t have hired her.”
  • You can’t discriminate. Just accept it and then don’t call.”
  • You have to be very careful. In today’s world, they’ll come and cut your hands off.”

These are HR pros? The ones (sometimes the lone ones) who should know better, understand all of the issues at play and make decent decisions, right?

This isn’t good

And that’s to say the least. We can also get one thing out of the way too: No, I don’t believe all HR professionals are like this.

In fact, I don’t believe a majority of HR professionals are like this. But these sorts of cases tend to reinforce people’s beliefs. If they thought HR people more closely resembled Toby from the TV series The Office, or Catbert, the Evil HR Director from Dilbert, it’s not much of a stretch for this episode to ring true to them.

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The scariest part about it is that these folks didn’t hesitate to go from “don’t discriminate” to “here’s how you avoid getting in trouble for it.” Is this the advice folks are dolling out on such a regular basis that they are willing to consult strangers on it? If someone at my company said they didn’t want to hire someone for some non-job related reason, I wouldn’t hesitate to stop it myself or escalate it further.

What can HR pros do?

Of course, individuals have to ask what they can do about issues like this. There are a couple of things that make sense:

  1. Do your job the right way – That’s the first step. People don’t expect perfection but they do expect your full effort goes into making sure that things like this don’t go down on your watch.
  2. Educate yourself – If you aren’t confident in your job and issues revolving around discrimination, diversity and inclusion, perhaps it is time to sit in on some education about them?
  3. Educate your peers – Both inside and outside the company, make an effort to educate the people around you about the impact that this has on all professionals.
  4. Call bad guys out – I don’t mean people acting out of ignorance because they don’t know but people that do know the laws (and the right thing to do) but do it anyway.

When stuff like this happens in the workplace, it disgusts me. When HR folks are actively involved in it though, it makes me angry.

We all deserve better and there are plenty of good HR pros out there who are willing to take these people’s jobs if they are encouraging people to not only break the law but also operate in a terrible way.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.