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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Can’t Always Pick Employees Based On The Interview

Can a company give a job to a less qualified male candidate just because he did better in the job interview than the female candidate?  That was the issue facing a federal judge in Virginia recently.

On paper, the female candidate was far superior to the male candidate.  The posting stated a preference for a college degree, which the female candidate had but the male candidate did not.  The female candidate had nearly twenty years of relevant management experience, compared to the male candidate’s four years.  But when the two candidates were brought in for in-person interviews, the company found that the male candidate’s responses were much better than those given by the female candidate.  A panel of eight people from the company conducted the interviews, and their decision to give the job to the male candidate was unanimous.

The female applicant sued the company for gender discrimination.  The company moved to dismiss the case by arguing that performance in a job interview was a big component of the selection process, and it should be free to rely on the interviews in deciding whom to hire for the job even if another applicant looks better on paper.

The judge ruled against the company and refused to dismiss the female applicant’s gender discrimination case.  The judge called the company’s justification for hiring the male candidate over the female “meager” given the disparity in qualifications, and he was not persuaded by the company’s “subjective explanation” that the male did better in the interview.  The judge warned that allowing company’s to ignore qualifications in favor of the subjective interview process would “allow employers unchallengeable authority to explain away employment decisions.”  The judge noted that it is almost impossible to evaluate the “truthfulness” of how a company rates candidates during the interview process.

This case is a wake-up call for employers who think they are free to do whatever they want in making hiring decisions.  Companies should pay particular attention to what they include in job postings, to make sure that the qualifications listed are those that will actually be determinant in the job selection.  And from this case, companies may want to include a statement in the job posting stressing the importance of the interview process.

Declan Leonard is managing partner of the Washington, DC regional business law firm Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. He can be reached at