Casting Internet Hiring in a New Light

By Joe Mullich

Sep. 3, 2004

Imagine a recruiter who must fill a position for a customer-service representative. She has access to thousands of candidates who have sent their résumés via the Internet into a general pool. With the specific position in mind, she runs a search for all candidates who have at least two years of experience; 990 people in the pool match this criterion. The recruiter understandably doesn’t want to go through the lengthy list of applicants to fill a single job. Instead, she changes the qualification requirements to make it more difficult. She runs another search for people who have five years’ experience and a bachelor’s degree.

    From the recruiter’s standpoint, this makes perfect sense. She now has a smaller, more experienced pool of candidates to choose from. This saves time and enables the recruiter to fill positions faster, a boon to the job-seeker and the company. The trouble is, the recruiter may have unknowingly run afoul of proposed new hiring rules from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, warns Lisa Harpe, an industrial psychologist with the Peopleclick Research Institute. The agency’s regulations define at what point in the job-filling process people who contact a company through the Internet should be considered applicants.

    In this common scenario, Harpe says, the recruiter has already begun to decide who may and may not proceed in the hiring process. That means an employer should make sure it can establish that the criteria the recruiter used are job-related and don’t adversely affect women and minority applicants. “Who says an applicant for this position needs five years’ experience rather than two?” Harpe asks. “Once you start hiring for a specific job, you should never change the questions in the middle of the process.”

    The proposed definition, experts say, will require companies to be on guard for unexpected consequences of seemingly innocuous processes such as this. In addition, the guidelines put the onus on companies to define and justify their own hiring processes. Carol Miaskoff, assistant legal counsel with the EEOC, compares the potential changes to those spurred by the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Suddenly, companies had to define the essential functions of a job,” she says. “Until then, a lot of companies went 10 to 20 years without updating their job descriptions.”

    Many companies had hoped that the proposed definition would provide specific guidance on who should be considered applicants. Instead, the proposed guidelines raise far more questions than they answer. Rather than narrowly defining what an “applicant” is, the EEOC expects employers to assume that responsibility. Its proposed definition of a job applicant has three parts:

  • The employer has acted to fill a particular position.

  • The individual has followed the employer’s standard procedure for submitting an application.

  • The individual has indicated an interest in the particular position.

    The definition of an applicant will vary from company to company, and might even vary for different positions within the same company. The looseness of the definition, hiring experts say, requires human resources departments to closely scrutinize their internal procedures and the career ladders for positions throughout the organization so they can take a more strategic approach to hiring.

    The new guidelines bring up all sorts of new wrinkles that hiring managers must consider:

    ●Are you asking the right prescreening questions? Many employers now use a prescreening questionnaire to identify which online applicants may proceed through the hiring process. Such questionnaires, however, are subject to adverse-impact analysis to see if the prescreening questions or searches of candidate pools remove a disproportionate number of women and minorities.

    Experts say these questions should be carefully worded in light of the proposed guidelines. For example, applicants should not be asked to interpret their own expertise, such as whether they are a beginner or advanced user of Microsoft Word. Instead, they should be required to provide objective information, such as the number of years they have used Word, their certification level, or specific projects in which the application has been used.

    These safeguards seem to be common sense, but Kathy Barton, vice president of marketing at Peopleclick, notes that recruiters are sometimes enthralled by “the flashing lights of technology.” The Peopleclick software, for example, gives a recruiter the ability to add prescreening questions at any time. “But just because you can do it, that doesn’t mean you should,” Barton says. The software also has the ability to allow only selected administrators to change screening questions, a roadblock that many firms are now adopting.

    ● Are the screening criteria right for the job? A lot of organizations generally say that they want only applicants who are college graduates, even for a position such as file clerk that doesn’t demand such an education level. “You shouldn’t require a master’s degree for new applicants if half the people who currently have the job don’t have a master’s,” Harpe says.

    The reasoning for the higher criteria is simple. The company knows that the next job a file clerk grows into requires a degree. However, the new guidelines raise questions about whether companies can screen applicants for qualifications they might need for future positions. “This will require employers to think carefully about how they have their career ladders set up,” Harpe says. It raises all sorts of issues that human resources departments have not had to consider before, she notes. “They need to be really clear about what experience and qualifications they need people to come in with and what they can acquire along the way. This will require a lot of conversations and thinking about what is best for the company.”

    ● Have backdoor hires been eliminated? Sham Sao, global vice president of marketing and business development for Deploy Solutions, has seen this problem in the retail environment. Many retailers have job-seekers apply through on-site kiosks, especially for hourly positions. Legal problems can arise when individual store managers go through the back door and hire employees while bypassing the system. As a result, Sao says, many companies have begun activating safeguards in their software that require managers to have applicants go through the online kiosks before the paperwork to hire a new employee can even be issued.

    ● Should you centralize the Internet hiring process? Harpe recommends that only one or two administrative people be put in charge of the technology. Companies should also have a written policy for managers to follow in having questions developed and approved.

    ● Can you stop taking paper résumés? The proposed guidelines apply solely to online hiring and recruiting. However, experts believe that some companies will not want the complication of dealing with two different definitions, so they will simply switch to an electronic process and do away with paper applications. This could reintroduce the issue of the digital divide if such action shuts off certain demographic groups who do not have access to the Internet. As a result, Harpe says, employers may have to provide alternative forms of access to job-seekers such as on-site kiosks and telephone systems.

    Marie Radcliffe, manager of EEO compliance at Pitney Bowes, expects to only have to do some fine-tuning of hiring practices once the regulations are finalized. For instance, the company currently runs generic ads for sales representatives, but the final regulations might require that such details as the location of each job be included.

    Right now, Radcliffe says, companies should be comparing their process with the proposed regulations to assess the manpower and financial impact of the changes. “It wouldn’t be wise use of anyone’s resources to implement significant changes before the regulations are finalized—which may require reversals of those same changes,” she says. But these are issues that every hiring manager who uses the Internet should be thinking about now.

Workforce Management, September 2004, pp. 72-76Subscribe Now!

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