Don’t ask me that question!


Published on 24th August, 2014 in The Economic Times

During an interview, in many parts of the world, you are not allowed to ask any question that is personal. You cannot ask if the candidate questions related to gender. You cannot ask where they reside or commute. You cannot ask about their sexual orientation or country of origin. You cannot ask about their age or their religion. You cannot ask about their marital status, spouse or children or family in general.

Why? Because there is a very real chance that the person may sue you if he does not get the job stating that s/he did not get the job because s/he was discriminated against because of age/gender/nationality/marital status/family status/ race/ religion/ residence. If you wish to be a ‘global’ company, in all likelihood, you have to follow these rules. They are supposed to create a world that is fair and just. They also create a world that is impersonal.

In modern management, we are supposed to look at people only as a set of skills. We hire them for their skills and we pay them for skills provided. Period. Nothing more. Nothing less. We don’t hire the person. Just what s/he can do and deliver. Is that the right way to look at a human being?

Apparently the courts say it is, because cases of discrimination are rising in countries with vast number of immigrants: people are being denied jobs because they are women, or gay, or black or brown or yellow, or because they are from Iran, or because they are Muslims or Hindus, or because they are disabled or because they have to take three trains and 2 buses to reach the place of work.

So to stop discrimination the interviewer is not allowed to ask people a set of questions. They are really not allowed to do ‘darshan’. Darshan or gazing upon people with empathy to get an insight into their lives is a key tool in management. We need to understand who exactly we are hiring. Resumes can be doctored. Investigative reports can give a lot of data and a lot of gossip. But they rarely tell us about a person’s personality and how it will manifest in the context we are in. Is the person we are hiring a rule-following Ram or a rule-breaker Krishna? Is the person we are hiring a shape-shifting Vishnu or an indifferent Shiva? Is the person we are hiring a control freak like Daksha or a self-indulgent king like Indra? A person in an interview may pretend beautifully and give all the right answers and we may end up hiring a senior professional who can disturb, even destroy, the organisational structure. We may, like Sita, end up with a Ravan. It is too huge a risk to take.

Darshan demands looking at who a person is beyond what he has achieved and what knowledge and skills he brings to the table. It demands looking at his career graph: what stage of his career is he? Has he achieved something already or is still restless and wants to prove himself? Has he failed at his last job or has been hugely successful? Where does his restlessness and drive come from? Often this comes from being an outsider on grounds of age, gender, sexuality, race etc, questions that one is not allowed to probe.

Darshan also demands looking at the family graph: what are the family responsibility he shoulders? Does he have debts? Are there ill parents? Young children? These affect relocation prospects. These affect ambition and drive. A person who has too many responsibilities may not want to take too many risks in his life. One who has no more family responsibilities may like to take it easy. All these factors impact business. These are root causes that affect human behaviour.

Of course, if you really want to know, we can probe the interviewee gently and manipulate the conversation such that there is voluntary disclosure. The trick is not to ask pointed questions in cultures that are anti-darshan, that equate darshan with invasion of privacy and intrusive and hostile. We must remember that in many parts of the world, empathy may be desirable, but darshan is forbidden. In USA for example, you could be arrested for staring too long. And cynics can easily turn darshan into an excuse to ogle.

The funny thing is that in life humans yearn to be seen. We want to be seen for what we have achieved, admired for what we do and don’t do. More importantly we want to be loved for what we are. But institutions are designed to reject this basic human need; they believe indulging this desire only leads to abuse. The only form of unabashed looking that is unequivocally allowed remains the closed circuit TV in work and public places for security reasons, and of course psychological tests that peep deep into the secrets of your mind and personality.