Why the cautious approach? As the following court ruling shows, even one statement to a candidate hinting about who you think is the "most qualified" can show preference. And later on, that statement can be used in court as potential proof of your discrimination.
Such statements alone could outweigh your defense that you had a legitimate reason for choosing one person over another.
Case in point: Employee Loretta Wilson received steady promotions during her career.
When she sought a VP position, the hiring manager told her she seemed like the "obvious candidate ... even though women aren't typically in that type of position." The hiring manager also told others that Wilson was the "most qualified" candidate, based on her experience.
Two male employees were also interviewed for the VP job, and one was ultimately hired.
Wilson sued, alleging discrimination in the company's failure to promote her. Result: A federal appeals court sided with her.
The court said the hiring manager's "mini-promises" weren't direct evidence of discrimination, but they could be used to rebut the company's argument that the male employee showed better qualifications. (Wilson v. B/E Aerospace Inc., No. 03-14909, 11th Cir., 2004)