Have you been asked when you graduated from University? is that age-based discrimination?

June 13, 2014

We were working with a senior candidate recently in our Supply Chain space and as part of the on-going discussion, he indicated that he’s become accustomed to both HR as well as hiring managers and other interviewers asking him directly when he graduated from university. On the face of it that sounds like something pretty benign – it seems possibly a reasonable question to ask someone who’s applying for an entry level-role. At the junior level, it just might make sense that a hiring manager might want to assess how a candidate is adjusting to getting out of school and into the workforce.

But at the Executive level? That’s a totally different ballgame. Is this something appropriate to ask? Is this question really relevant to anything other than an attempt to underhandedly ‘suss out’ the candidate’s approximate age or years to retirement? Well, it’s certainly skating on very thin ice.

As recruiters it’s our job to know what can and cannot be said and we are happy to advise as to what should and shouldn’t be said (but that’s only when we know it’s going on).The Ontario Human Rights Code prohibits any kind of discrimination on the grounds of age (along with race, colour, sex, disability, etc). Candidates can file complaints and seek damages when they feel like they’ve been discriminated against during the hiring process. Proving this can be tricky, but one piece of evidence that the Ontario Human Rights Commission takes into account is if euphemistic language is used in relation to a candidate’s age during an interview. We went right to the horse’s mouth to get the facts about this very issue. Human Rights says some interesting stuff one might not be aware of. For example, if an employer says:

“Do you think you can handle this job? It takes someone who is full of vim and vigor,” or

“We’re looking to rejuvenate our workforce,” these comments can be interpreted as indirect age-related comments in the eyes of the OHRC.

But what about the degree question? Should employers avoid asking senior candidates when they graduated from university?

Paul Richards, a Correspondence Coordinator at the OHRC,  quoted us a relevant section of the Commission’s 2008 “Human Rights at Work” report:

“No questions about age are permitted on an application form, other than whether an applicant is 18 years or over. Employers should not ask for the date of birth or a birth certificate, or for other documents that indicate age (such as baptismal records, driver’s license, etc.).

Information about a person’s education at this stage should be limited to information about the degree or level of education, professional credentials, diplomas, etc. received. Asking applicants to provide the names of schools or copies of diplomas, certificates and professional credentials may indicate place of origin. Therefore, it is advisable not to collect such information until after making a conditional offer of employment.” (source)

So there you have it. Employers should NOT be actively asking about the dates when applicants graduated from university. It’s easy for this type of information to come up informally during an interview. But if a candidate has noticed this question coming up in interviews persistently, it starts to look like a pattern.

But beyond employers asking candidates when they graduated, there are a few other tricky pieces of language that come into play that can be harder to assess, for example:

“Over qualification.” This one comes up a lot. There are obviously cases where an individual is actually over qualified. It’s reasonable for a hiring manager to not feel comfortable managing someone who could, in all honesty, manage them. And it’s also reasonable to turn a candidate down for a job if they’re likely to leave early for a more senior job with more responsibility, more in line with their skills. Over qualification certainly exists. But “overqualified” can be an unfortunate euphemism for age-based discrimination, and that’s a shame. Employers should make a statement about a candidate being overqualified only if they actually are overqualified.

Anyone who’s followed the economic picture since the 2008 recession knows it’s been extraordinarily tough for more senior workers, especially after many were laid off during that crisis. We represent quite a few very talented professionals at the more senior end of the Supply Chain spectrum, and they’re some of the smartest, most strategic candidates out there. We obviously strongly caution against discrimination on the basis of age.

But what do you think about this ambiguous language related to age in the hiring process? Do you have any experiences to share? Let us know in the comments!

It’s an interesting issue, and we find no matter what, people hiring seem to find new and novel ways to push the envelope onto that slippery slope.

Over and Out



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