Give your best visual guess about a job candidate's ethnicity
December 1, 2014 7:07 AM   Subscribe

As part of my friend's job, she was asked to give a visual guess of a job candidate's ethnicity. She felt uncomfortable doing so, and has questions about it.

Recently, a friend of mine told me that she was asked by her HR department at a private American university to give her "best visual guess" as to the ethnicity of job candidates who were interviewed for positions in the office. These candidates had opted out of completing the EEO information about their ethnicity on the job application. My friend responded saying that she was not comfortable supplying this kind of information, but one of the HR people said that this was a US federal requirement and that it is used when the government looks closely at hiring practices to make sure her institutions is indeed an equal opportunity employer.

My friend felt uncomfortable making a guess about a person's ethnicity for a few reasons: Is this legal? If the candidate opted out of providing demographic information, why should my friend have to supply this information? What good is a "visual guess" about a person's ethnicity, anyway? My friend works in race and diversity issues, so understandably has issues with reporting another person's identity, especially based solely on appearance.

My friend was encouraged to help the HR department out as "part of her job" and comply with HR's requests even though she only works tangentially with HR. The person who originally requested the information said they would ask at the next HR meeting what the requirements are for collecting this information, and to try to answer my friend's question that they shouldn't make the EEO portion of the application optional if it is required on the other end by the government. And if it is a government requirement that the EEO section remain optional, it does not make sense that the government would then require hiring managers/recruiters to "fill in the blanks" whenever a candidate opts out.

Has anyone else faced this? What are standard protocols for reporting ethnicity of candidates to the federal government for institutions of higher education? Is my friend indeed obligated to guess at someone's ethnicity?
posted by msbrauer to Law & Government (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Back when I worked as an operator for Maryland Relay, callers would periodically ask us to identify the race of the speaker on the other line. Even if we had a pretty good guess, we were required to say we didn't have that information.

If I were in your friend's place, I would just shrug and say "I don't know."
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:16 AM on December 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: This is not directly relevant, but federal contractors are permitted to, but not required to, visually identify the ethnicity of job applicants.

See here:
5(a). . . . [S]elf-identification will remain the preferred method for compiling information about the sex, race or ethnicity of applicants and employees. A contractor's invitation to self-identify race or ethnicity should state that the submission of such information is voluntary. However, contractors may use post-employment records or visual observation when an individual declines to self-identify his or her race or ethnicity
It would be pretty surprising if non-contracting private employers were forbidden from doing something that federal contractors were permitted to do. Moreover, since racism tends to work based on the viewers assumption of the "target's" race, not necessarily their actual or self-identified race, I'm not sure this is even a theoretical, ethical, or philosophical problem.

If the applicant's race is actually ambiguous, she should probably say she can't tell. If there's a good chance it's one thing or another, she should probably just report that, notwithstanding potential inaccuracy.
posted by toomuchpete at 7:26 AM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was going to say something similar to toomuchpete above. She (as representing her employer) may use visual impression for reporting purposes. But I don't think she has to. And if they insist she answer, she could just say, "unclear".

Having been on the other side of this scenario, as the job candidate who is not volunteering information, I appreciate your friend's careful handling of the issue. In my case, I was apparently reported as "white" (by an HR employee who had never seen me) and this information wasn't just reported to EEOC but also was included in my employee record. So.
posted by zennie at 7:47 AM on December 1, 2014

If you are an EEO employer* then reporting to the government isn't optional but self-reporting from the applicant is optional. So, you can't make the person tell you what race they are but you still have to report something and you are allowed to guess. If you tell the HR people it is unclear then the HR person just had to write something down anyway.

As the HR person in this situation I'm begging you to just make a guess and let them know so they can check their box and finish their report. This information shouldn't be in an employee's file so if that is what happened at a previous company zennie then they were doing it wrong.

*Federal contractor is one of the reasons you may comply with EEOC rules and reporting but other companies do as well.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:03 AM on December 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Public schools receiving federal funds have to make a "visual guess" about students' ethnicities if the students don't self-report it. Again, it's just for reporting in the aggregate, it doesn't make any difference for anything actually related to the student.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:10 AM on December 1, 2014

I used to be an employer. I had to report on the gender and race of employees. When I worked for big EEO employeers, we had to report race for interviewees and applicants. The info is used to see if discrimination is happening. Make a reasonable guess, or describe applicants to HR and let them guess, and move on.
posted by theora55 at 10:38 AM on December 1, 2014

Best answer: If this is a new policy, it is likely related to the new rules for Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act. These went into effect this spring, and do require federal contractors and subcontractors to actively prove they are meeting or working toward specific metrics.
posted by susanvance at 11:16 AM on December 1, 2014

I have had to make visual guesses on ethnicity of clients as well for federal reporting purposes.
posted by corb at 5:05 PM on December 1, 2014

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