Monday, December 13, 2004

Unintentional Descrimination

A Sunday article in The Washington Post reported about 11,000 new jobs in the homeland security domain that are expected to be created in Northern Virginia within the next five years. The article included an interview with SRA, which expects to add several hundred in the next six months. The SRA representative indicated that their hiring strategy is generally to ask their employees for referrals; they generally don't advertise the open positions.

What SRA doesn't realize is that this policy results in unintentional discrimination, and should be balanced with a corresponding affirmative action program to really be considered fair. The reason is that if SRA has a disproportionate number of white employees (I have no idea if they do.) then they will get a disproportionate number of white applicants for these positions. It's not that white people won't refer their minority friends to their employer, it's that white employees on average have proportionally fewer minority friends than exist minorities in the general population.

I am reminded of my experience when I graduated from Villanova in 1992. You may recall that there was an economic downturn in 1992, and jobs were hard to come by. My grandfather was an accountant, and had provided accountancy services to Sharp electronics. He asked Sharp to give me a call and set up an interview.

Now, understand that I was and remain grateful to my grandfather for his help, but I am very pleased that I did not have to accept an offer from Sharp: I found a position with GE instead. Even at the time I was gravely troubled. I'm sure (I opined) that there are any number of minority engineers graduating from Drexel who are more qualified than I for a position at Sharp electronics. They are significantly less likely to have accountant grandfathers than similarly qualified white graduates. (Their grandfathers, in many cases, having been forbidden by law or custom from holding white-collar jobs.) This kind of networking amounts to a kind of structural descrimination. The hiring manager sees disproportinally fewer minority candidates, and ends up hiring disproportionally fewer minorities.

As long as programs like SRA's exist, the need for affirmative action will continue to exist.

I hope it won't be forever.


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