Does New Hiring Tool Aid Diversity Or Discrimination?

A new tool lets job recruiters filter candidates based on race, gender and veteran status. Civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri sorts through the legal questions about this program.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We've been talking a lot on this program about the push for equal opportunities in the workplace. Today, we look at a new hiring tool that raises some interesting questions about the recruitment process. The tool was developed by a San Francisco-based startup called Entelo. It allows employers to sort applicants according to things like ethnicity and gender and status as a military veteran - for example, you can say show me all the candidates who are women or show me all the candidates who are African-American veterans.

Now, as you might imagine, this tool which is scheduled to launch yesterday has already sparked some controversy. A Fox business columnist suggested it's a tool for quote reverse discrimination. We wanted to hear more about this so we've called once again on Cyrus Mehri. He's a founding partner of the law firm Mehri and Skalet, PLLC. He's worked on landmark civil rights cases involving employment discrimination. And he's with us once again in our studios in Washington, D.C. Cyrus Mehri, thanks for joining us once again.

CYRUS MEHRI: Thank you.

MARTIN: So first I wanted to ask about the whole question of Silicon Valley.

MEHRI: Sure.

MARTIN: And the employment situation in there. I mean, on the one hand, this is the - kind of the cutting edge of the economy and you'd think it's all kind of open, you know, new and yet the numbers there, to the degree that we know because many of these companies refuse to disclose their employment statistics, we still hear that, you know, women are still far below their numbers in the population as represented as employees there, African-Americans, minorities in general. Why is that?

MEHRI: There are flaws in the evaluation systems in many companies. Some of the companies had or till recently had a forced ranking type of system which then would force people to kind of be on the kind of survivor show where someone's going to get thrown out of their group as opposed to kind of cultivating innovation and teamwork.

So then there's issues of the education system that's kind of the pipeline into some of these companies. And we have profound problems of higher education being exclusionary partly about how people get selected into the elite schools. It's a cascading set of problems that begins, I think, at the higher education, in the point of entry at these companies and then when it comes to advancement and compensation once they get there.

MARTIN: So this tool was developed, as we mentioned, by this San Francisco startup called Entelo. And we reached out to their CEO, his name is Jon Bischke. And we asked him why he thinks this is an important tool and what he thinks it'll accomplish. And this is part of what he told us.

JON BISCHKE: It's important to point out that this tool isn't used to necessarily hire someone for a job. We always - we feel you should always hire the best people for every position - rather it's about trying to make sure that the pool of applicants or the pool of candidates is as diverse as possible. There is a lot of discrimination that exists in the workforce. Our hope, our desire would be that that wasn't the case, and our tool is designed to hopefully correct any imbalances that might already exist.

MARTIN: Couldn't somebody use a tool like this just to say just give me all the white males?

MEHRI: I think it could be misused that way. But clearly the purpose behind it is the opposite - to be inclusionary. And that's why we've started with the Coca-Cola settlement, with the NFL -what's known as the Rooney Rule.

We've advanced the idea of having a diverse slate of candidates so you're not just tapping on the shoulder, you're making sure you have a more competitive process to make sure that you're hiring the best. And that means you need to have pools of people from different backgrounds.

MARTIN: Well, people think that - I think therein lies the rub because there are some people who object on its face to even considering ethnicity or gender. I mean, their argument is that by definition bringing ethnicity and gender into it reduces the meritocracy. It should all be on something objective and achievement oriented, it's something that you can accomplish as opposed to what you are.

MEHRI: By having a more inclusive process you are enhancing meritocracy. When you have a closed-minded approach based on presumptions that may not be correct, you're going to have less successful choices in the long run. One practical thing that listeners may not know - the way Silicon Valley typically hires is not the way that I would hire, for example, in my law firm where I look at a stack of resumes and actually eyeball them.

They are using computerized systems to match up the resumes to the job description and then using that as their pool. And so they're already not using the human element necessarily at that first cut. So adding something like this, which would make sure that you're looking at more sources of information to get in that first round, seems to me would enhance the process.

MARTIN: Well, there are those, I think, who would argue that's the whole point of using computers - to remove the human element, which people believe introduces the bias.

MEHRI: Well, you can't exclude the human element 'cause a human being is going to make that hiring decision. But what you can do is motivate the decision-makers to value diversity as a business necessity and then help them get there by making sure they have a viable set of candidates of different backgrounds.

MARTIN: Could it be that, for example, the recruiters are people you tend to recruit in their social networks and if their social networks are not diverse you're not even going to see resumes to get into the system. For example, you might not know anybody who went to HBCU...

MEHRI: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...Or a Latino serving institution and therefore none of those candidates would even apply.

MEHRI: Right. And the more proactive companies are looking at different forms of social media - they may look at root.com and not just at their - you know, the prior schools that people went to. So they'll just expand the horizons of what the possibilities are. And this is only about possibilities 'cause a candidate will still have to get in the process and compete and show the decision-maker what they have to offer.

But when that happens, surprisingly, people that may have gone under the radar get discovered. And we've seen that happen over and over again whether you look at the success we've had with the NFL or companies that are less well-known. We've seen it happen over and over again - people getting discovered.

MARTIN: Cyrus Mehri is a partner at the law firm Mehri and Skalet, PLLC. He was kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington, D.C. Cyrus, thanks so much for joining us once again.

MEHRI: Thanks for having me.

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