This post was written by Alison Green and published on Ask a Manager.
A reader writes:
My company recently hired a new shipping manager. When they announced his name, my heart fell to realize it was an acquaintance of mine from a previous job. At the same time, I was very relieved that I hadn’t been involved in the hiring process, because I would have had a hard time being objective with it.
My last job before this was within a few miles of a highly conservative bible college/seminary. We hired lots and lots of their students. Probably 25 of 40 part-time workers on that shift were from that college. Nobody ever put any sort of restrictions on them having impromptu prayer groups or devotions in the break room, or discriminated against them in any way. Far from it, usually it was the seminary students lodging complaints that they had overheard someone say a swear word or that someone’s rock radio station is profane and they shouldn’t have to hear it. (Instead of music, some of them would blare recorded sermons and lectures on their portable speakers while working.) Overall, they were mostly nice, clean-cut, hard-working kids, but my point is they were very open about their main beliefs.
One of those core beliefs specific to this particular college and branch of Christianity is that wives need to submit to their husbands in everything, because women are the weaker sex and need guidance and spiritual leadership. At least a dozen coworkers I knew from that college got married while in school, and some of the new wives worked until kids came along but none worked outside the home after. After graduating, some students stayed on as supervisors while they looked for a church to pastor. The new shipping manager at my current company had been had been one of them.
At my old company, female warehouse employees did get hired, but their training and opportunities always lagged significantly behind their male counterparts. The warehouse I used to work at opened in the 90’s and their first female assistant supervisor was hired in 2020. She was an external hire and remains the only woman supervisor in a 24/7 facility with a total of 11 warehouse supervisors that constantly turn over. (I finally walked away after six years of being told I wasn’t quite supervisor material. Once in this new location, my career took off and I’m in my third management role here. I was proud to hire and promote women for warehouse work and glad to leave that environment behind.)
If I had been involved in hiring this round, I would have been really worried about putting someone who believes men and women are not equal in charge of a department and expecting them to manage fairly, just based on my personal knowledge of their beliefs. Are there even any fair, legal questions that could be asked to determine if this would be a problem?
It’s good practice to ask all management candidates about their experiences working with and managing people who are different from them. It matters for all of them, not just people you already have concerns about — because while the people you used to work with wore their biases on their sleeves, a lot of other candidates will come with biases too. So it’s smart to always probe into how potential managers operate with people who aren’t just like them.
Some ways to do it are with questions like:
• Can you tell us about a time when you worked to make sure your team was a place where everyone could thrive, particularly women and people of color? Possible follow-up: How did you check to ensure those efforts were working?
• Can you tell us about a time you navigated difficult dynamics around race, gender, or other identities in your work? Possible follow-up: What do you think were some of the root causes of those dynamics?
• How do you think about equity and bias around things like race and gender when hiring or developing people? Possible follow-up: How have you known when your efforts to foster equity were working or not?
• In your work as a manager, how do you approach learning about equity and inclusion issues? Follow-ups: What’s something you’re working on learning? What strategies are you using?
(If anyone reading this is thinking, “I wouldn’t have anything good to answer those questions with”: That’s a flag that you need to start thinking about it, particularly if you’re managing people or want to manage people.)
Ideally you’d also have a diverse group of people involved in hiring so that you can observe whether candidates treat people with similar respect regardless of race, gender, disability, and other potential differences.
But also, in this specific situation with your new shipping manager: You had worked with him previously and had firsthand knowledge of how he operated then. That’s fair game to consider when you’re hiring and to share with others in the hiring process. “He’s a member of religion X” isn’t something you can legally consider in hiring, but “he treated men differently than women, wouldn’t promote women regardless of their skills, and made the two women on the team feel shut out of decision-making” certainly is.
And of course, not all biases will come out in interviews, so you also need your company to be committed to equity once people are hired — like implementing systematized ways of looking at who’s hired/promoted/listened to/given opportunities/paid more, having safe processes for people to report concerns and ensuring they’re addressed in meaningful ways, and having leadership that’s willing to tackle things that are uncomfortable (for themselves and/or people around them).