Saturday, February 01, 2014

Obama Jawboning Against Hiring Discrimination for Long-Term Unemployed--It Just May Work

One of the grab-bag of topics on President Obama's recent State of the Union was cajoling employers not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed. On moral grounds, I certainly think the sentiment is worthy. The idea that one major incident of bad luck--becoming unemployed, for whatever reason--could destroy a person's future prospects is shocking. One of the great attributes of America is the idea that the door is never closed--it's never too late to try something new, to reinvent yourself[1]. This kind of structural inflexibility reminds me of Britain c.1900[2]. It is morally wrong, and very un-American.

But is it the proper role of a President to micro-manage in this way? And is it likely to be effective? On the first point--I'll say yes, given the circumstances. With an obstructionist Congress foreclosing the possibility of doing anything big; and a country still struggling with unemployment--I say, do good where you can. This initiative both aims to do practical good, and provides a secondary benefit of perhaps stimulating some reflection on unexamined assumptions regarding how society is organized (this essay for example).

As to whether it will be effective--in other cases I might say it's 99.5% empty, if well-intentioned, sermonizing from the bully pulpit. But this might be an exception. Corporate HR departments are just about the least creative, most reactive, most risk-averse organizations you will ever find. Nearly never do they have striking original ideas, so they are always looking for trends (sometimes called "best practices") to latch onto. And then once a policy is promulgated, HR will want to observe it religiously, black-and-white, no shades of grey.

So the way it could work out in this case is that some corporate HR departments propose equal opportunity in hiring, for long-term unemployed, as a company policy, and get general management to sign-off. Instantly, it becomes the mission of HR to ensure the policy is pursued. Trust me, many HR types will do this, even to the point of being counter-productive. E.g., you as hiring manager have a dozen promising resumes for an open position, but none are long-term unemployed...HR will push to keep the posting open, in the hopes of attracting some long-term unemployed resumes. This is dumb, it goes way too far (I don't want affirmative action for long-term unemployed, just non-discrimination). But the point is, if presidential jawboning results in corprorate HR getting behind the idea, it just may catch fire.

[1] Not saying it's easy, that's a whole different argument. Just saying that the door isn't supposed to be barred on principle.
[2] At least that's how I recall having seen it portrayed in multiple BBC series. A young family man, aspiring but of humble origins and without connections, loses his job to a spiteful boss and permanently falls back 3 rungs in the economic ladder. Or a mere domestic servant, dismissed without a reference, is reduced to begging.

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