The headline of a recent People Management Magazine article was, “Only a third of HR Managers ‘confident they are not prejudiced’ when hiring.

When I had just read the headline, I made a huge assumption. I thought they were acknowledging that they might have been exhibiting unconscious bias; that they were questioning their decision-making. Good, I thought, we should always challenge ourselves, challenge our perceptions and our biases. Unconscious biases can be useful to us as human beings (a bit like Generalisations in NLP). They are a way of dealing with the vast amounts of information with which we are being bombarded on a daily basis. As long as we are aware of them, we can deal with them.

Then I read the full the article. I was horrified.

The study focussed on HR in small businesses, the kind of places where I do a lot of my business. According to the article, 74% of HR Managers report witnessing discrimination during the recruitment process and 25% witnessed discrimination during recruitment on a regular basis. Ok, but that doesn’t tell me very much. Witnessing it is one thing, doing something about it is something else. It wasn’t clear to me what they would do when they witnessed discrimination.

In my later years as a full-time employee, people didn’t do anything that was discriminatory in front of me, probably because of my job. It’s the same now. However, I’ve forgotten the number of times people have told me that they witnessed something and have been aghast when I said,

“And what did you do about that?”

“Who me? Do something?”

Yes, you.

At the very least, we should challenge discriminatory behaviour. Of course, I understand that, if you are very junior in a company and there is a strong bullying culture, you might not feel able to do anything (although I’d have to wonder why you’d want to work in an organisation like that), but if you are in HR, you cannot, in my opinion, keep spouting the Nuremberg defence. You are duty bound to do something about any form of discrimination.

The article then went on to say that 11% of HR managers would ‘be reluctant to recruit a recently married woman as they were more likely to go on maternity leave soon’ and 18% said that they would overlook a pregnant candidate. There were other biases relating to education and accent, but they didn’t shock me as much as the comments about pregnant women.

How on earth can these people call themselves HR managers? I am very clear that part of our role is to defend employment rights, and protect against discrimination, whatever our personal views or those of our paymasters?

I’ll be honest, my personal opinion is that it is morally wrong to take a job when you know that you are going on maternity leave in a few months and your new employer doesn’t know. It annoys me beyond measure.

Morally wrong, not legally. I know that the Sex Discrimination Act is there to protect women, including pregnant women, from discrimination. I know that is unlawful for me to refuse to employ a woman, if she is the best candidate for the job, just because she is pregnant. I also know the pressure that losing a member of staff for any reason, only one of which is pregnancy, can be for small employers. I sympathise, I really do. I know how they can transfer that pressure to their HR rep, but we are supposed to be above that. We are supposed to explain to our paymasters the reason why they should and shouldn’t do something. My stock line is, “If you choose to ignore my professional advice, these are the potential consequences…”.

HR professionals must always do their best, uphold the standards of the profession, be honest and ethical in all our dealings. And we must not condone breaking the law.

The full People Management article can be found here:

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