Code Words and Hiring: A Bad Mix

When you were growing up, was there anything better than spy movies? Remember when two spies would meet at a caf? in East Berlin, and give the sign and countersign? It was always a tense moment: “Did you just arrive from Bonn on the train?”

“Yes, but we were delayed in Hamburg.”

“Agent 27?”

“Yes, that you 49?” Suddenly, the hero is being handed the plans for a nuclear amphibious miniature battleship! Suddenly, the lights go out! Suddenly a knife thrown from the kitchen by an arm, without a face! Suddenly, a woman screams! The camera fades and slowly a shot of the war room in the Pentagon comes into focus as our hero sips a cup of coffee, the plans safely returned. Our hero has the usual look of disdain for all things routine on his face as his boss tells him of his next mission. Later in life, we develop code words with our friends or college roommates: “Remember, if the date is going well, I will say I am looking forward to the weekend and you leave. But, if the date isn’t so hot…” Sometimes, as adults, we still use code words. “Honey, I would love to stay all night and keep listening to your ex-roommates from your single days discuss your beer binges, but I think I left the coffee pot on in the kitchen. We gotta go! NOW!” Okay, some code words are less subtle than others. But in order to work, your code words have to fit into everyday conversation and not appear out of the ordinary. (The fox runs before the wind. Yes, but it is the raven that rules the sky. Huh?) But, so what, there are no code words in human resources or staffing. Right? Right? Well, there are, and they have been around as long as I can remember. But many times their use is not just a harmless hint that your friends are boring or that the secret plans are reduced to microdots in the cigarette pack. Sometimes they represent a passive way of breaking the laws pertaining to fair hiring. I first became aware of “code words” as a young recruiter. Hiring managers or clients often seemed to have specific and detailed reasons for not hiring one candidate, while for others their reasons appeared more vague or non-specific. Then I began to notice trends and tendencies in those occurrences. Candidates that fit certain profiles seemed to be rejected for “subjective” reasons more often than others. For example:

  • A male candidate is rejected for a finance position due to their lack of detailed knowledge of the companies existing automated accounting system. (objective)
  • A female candidate was rejected because she lacked presence. (subjective)

Or:

  • A Caucasian candidate was rejected because while they had the prerequisite years of experience, they lacked depth of knowledge. (objective)
  • A candidate of color did not fit the corporate profile. (subjective)

When we brief our hiring managers or clients regarding prospective candidates or debrief them regarding a candidate interview, many of the comments are objective and therefore easy to quantify and verify:

  • The candidate may lack a critical skill.
  • The level of their expertise was misrepresented on their resume.
  • Sometimes the interview reveals irreconcilable differences or issues that place the candidate and company at cross-purposes.

All can be verified. But have you ever felt that a candidate match was better than good, or that an interview had gone well, only to have the process terminated for purely subjective and seemingly shallow reasons, such as:

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  • Does not fit the corporate profile.
  • Lacks presence.
  • Has poor communication skills.
  • Overqualified for the position.
  • Does not appear to be a team player.
  • May have trouble fitting in with the group.

Now, I realize that each of these comments more often than not have an appropriate use in the everyday business of interviewing, evaluating, and making final decisions regarding candidates and their qualifications. But usually these subjective “bon mots” are added comments, not the sole and driving rational for accepting or rejecting. Therefore, on closer examination they could also be revealed as “code words.” Not all negative subjective comments represent “code words.” Presence is a true personality trait. In some positions the ability to communicate in a clear and concise manner is critical. We all want to get along with our coworkers and hope they are focused on a common goal. We all fear hiring employees with a high probability of getting bored and leaving. These are real issues, but subjective reasons alone for rejecting candidates, especially if you see a statistical profile of “certain” candidates suffering more often, often indicate a “code word.” Sometimes the candidate will give a direct and truthful answer that reveals a subjective issue. Sometimes there are behavioral indicators. Sometimes managers rely on past employment experiences. Sometimes they are merely relying on their “gut.” Then again, sometimes they are relying on their personal prejudices. If they do not think you would allow prejudicial practices, and they had better really feel that way about you, then they will resort to the old reliable “code words:

  • “Does not fit the corporate profile.” Or possibly: not Caucasian.
  • “Lacks presence.” Or possibly: unattractive.
  • “Poor communication skills.” Or possibly: foreign born.
  • “Overqualified for the position.” Or possibly: too old.
  • “Does not appear to be a team player.” Or possibly: I feel threatened.
  • “May have trouble fitting in with the group.” Or possibly: We don’t like him or her.

The hypothetical manager in question may have different definitions for the code words listed above, or they may their own family of code words. These are just examples of a few of the code words I have uncovered in my own career. What are some of the indicators of “code words” vs. honest subjective analysis?

  • Is corporate profile an issue only with candidates of color or opposite genders?
  • Does a male manager only make reference to presence in discussing female candidates? (Or vice versa.)
  • In communications skills issues, do the positions require direct communications outside the company? Is the person truly unable to communicate, or is a little patience all that is required? There are articulation issues and there is intolerance.
  • If the person “fits” the salary range, and has the prerequisite skills, and wants the job, why does the manager not want the added experience? Does the job truly require fives year’s experience and not a day more?
  • What questions and what answers painted the picture of a non-team player? What is a team player; can the manager define the prerequisites for you?
  • Exactly how, in an interview, can you tell how somebody will be perceived 90-120 days into the future and their willingness to work on fitting in? Exactly what does the manager require to “fit in”?

When seeking to determine the existence of “code words” look for the following:

  • Consistency. Do all candidates endure the same questions and are the same general areas consistently emphasized in your briefings and debriefings with your hiring managers? Or are certain non-defined subjective evaluations reserved consistently for only “special” candidates. (We like these four guys, they have strong analytical skills. The other candidates lacked presence.)
  • Depth. Did the manager seem satisfied to merely develop a subjective opinion and drop the candidate without any real data developed about objective skills? (“Well, once we discovered she was not a team player, all the guys agreed that it made no sense to evaluate her Java skills.)
  • Timeliness. Are the same candidate profiles consistently rejected for subjective reasons rejected in the same day, while other “mainstream” candidates require more time to develop a final decision? (The last person was good, but overqualified. But we need two days to consider these other qualified candidates.)
  • Forecasting. Do certain profile candidates seem to suffer a larger percentage of pre-interview negative predictions? (“Well, I will see him, but I doubt he would like it here!”)
  • Doing the candidate a favor. Do managers hint that you may well save them and yourself time by screening out “subjectively challenged” candidates? You know, make it seem like they are doing the candidates a favor. (“Women seem to find it hard to become part of the team in this environment. It just becomes a bad career experience for them. I feel for them. So don’t send me female candidates, for their own sake.”)

This kind of behavior can only exist if:

  • The managers or clients assume you agree with them.
  • The managers or clients assume you do not agree, but will play along.
  • The managers or clients know you are either unaware or uncaring enough to figure it out, or even try.

Anyone of the above circumstances makes you a “pal” to your hiring managers, but it also makes you a fraud or a failure as an HR/staffing professional. Code words can only exist where they are allowed, tolerated, or no effort is made to prevent their use. This is not merely an issue of moral right or wrong. It is also an issue of your lack of oversight and failure to exercise due diligence, which thereby makes your employer vulnerable to the worst kind of employment publicity, potential sanctions, and fines, or all three. “Asleep at the switch” is not considered an affirmative and effective defense during an EEO/AA audit or unfair hiring practices class-action suit. (“Mr. Recruiter, you mean it never struck you as odd that a department of 50 men consistently rejected female applicants for not ‘fitting the corporate profile’?”) Code words can only exist where permitted to do so. Do you know what the code words really mean? “Prejudice and bigotry alive and well within!” Not every subjective comment belies a code word; there are people who lack presence and positions that require it. But if the “code users” do not fear “code breakers,” then they are free to “dit-dit-dah” all the livelong day. It is wrong. And it is your job to prevent it. “Eagles swoop and soar with impunity in a big sky.” (Translation: Have a great day recruiting!) Author’s note: 226 years ago on November 10th, the United States Marine Corps was formed to protect a young and struggling nation (Hoorah!). I would like to wish all my brother and sister Marines on this date a happy and healthy (though few days belated) birthday. To those who “stand to” this date in the defense of our homes and our lives, and who proudly stand for “Duty-Honor-Country,” let me say Semper Fi and, “Watch your six.”

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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