How not to manage HR: Forget about formal hiring and promotions processes

Sometimes, the best lessons are learned from the worst examples. That’s often the case with HR management. When employers make big mistakes and have to pay for them in court, other employers with good practices—that maybe need just a little tweaking—can discover what not to do.

Recent case: Three women who claim they were stuck in dead-end jobs while working for the Manhattan grocery store chain Gristede’s sued their employer, alleging sex discrimination. They asked the court to let them represent all other similarly situated women working for the company.

Each claimed she had applied for a job with Gristede’s and that she was steered into a part-time cashier position. Meanwhile, male applicants were placed in more desirable part-time clerk positions. The women said they remained stuck as cashiers while they watched their male counterparts move up the ladder into higher-paying management positions.

In court, Gristede’s had to explain its hiring and promotion practices—such as they were.

The company had a corporate manager who essentially served as the HR department. Although he had an undergraduate degree in HR, he had no further training and testified that no one at the company had given him any instructions on discrimination laws.

Hiring for Attitude D

Plus, he said that the company had no job descriptions, no formal hiring policies, no set promotions processes and no method for applicants or employees to find out about job openings or how to apply.

When asked how he chose applicants to hire or promote, he said he based his decisions strictly on how the applicants handled themselves during the interview and whether they were friendly and honest.

The women called in an expert witness, a statistician who had analyzed hiring and promotion at Gristede’s. He testified that there was a 100% probability that sex discrimination was occurring. Essentially, he said, Gristede’s segregated employees by sex and promoted only men through a word-of-mouth process.

The combination of the company’s testimony and that of the statistician was enough to persuade the court to let the case go to trial as a class-action lawsuit. (Duling, et al., v. Gristede’s Operating Corporation, No. 06-CIV-10197, SD NY, 2010)

Avoid these hiring and promotion mistakes

Here are some of the mistakes you should avoid when it comes to hiring and promotion practices:

  • No job descriptions. If you don’t have them, you’re asking to be sued. You need job descriptions, including a list of essential functions, so managers know what characteristics they’re looking for when interviewing applicants.
  • No specialized training. Those making HR decisions must be up-to-date on the latest discrimination and other essential HR laws.
  • No formal policies and processes. Employers that rely on management recommendations alone risk having decision-making tainted by managerial bias. It’s a common phenomenon: People, left to their own devices, will select those who are most like themselves to hire and promote. And remember, discrimination doesn’t have to be intentional to be illegal—the practice only needs to have a disparate impact on a protected class.