Sunday 20 October 2019

'Shocking' job advert posted by Dublin-based firm highlights employer discrimination

Employers can risk losing out on the best candidate for the job if bias goes undetected

(Philip Toscano/PA)
(Philip Toscano/PA)

Donal O’Donoghue

'Persons with young children need not apply' was the shocking directive in a recent job advert posted by a Dublin-based oil company on the recruitment search engine,

This type of blatant discrimination is illegal and generally not widespread, but employers can inadvertently find themselves in trouble if they do not address bias in the selection process.

On paper, most employers have an 'equal opportunities' policy in place.  But, in reality, many still slip up when it comes to actively implementing and adhering to it.  Numerous complaints to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) that concern discrimination are in relation to employers' recruitment and selection practices.

The Equality Acts and numerous employment laws seek to outlaw discrimination in recruitment and in the workplace, and they apply to all employees and agency workers, full-time, part-time or contracting, in both the public and private sectors.    

Nine grounds of discrimination are covered, namely age, disability, gender, sexual orientation, family status, marital status, race, religion, and membership of the travelling community.

A claim under the Employment Equality Acts 1998‐2015 can cost a company big time, if upheld by the WRC under any of these nine grounds.

So, ignorance of the law can be costly, in monetary terms, not to mention companies potentially losing out on the best candidate for the job, if bias goes undetected and unpunished.  


Mind your Language!

The Dublin oil company looking for an office worker without young children showed a pretty blatant disregard for equality law that most people would be conscious of.  Marital and family circumstances have no place in recruitment advertising or interviews, not even as an ‘ice breaker’ to open an interview.

Role titles in a job ad cannot be gender specific, so it is important to avoid terms like ‘waitress', ‘barmaid’, ‘salesman' or ‘manageress'.

There are other more subtle terms appearing in job searches that are equally judged to be unacceptable.

Looking for a ‘young and dynamic’ individual to join your team is out, and both the age reference and dynamism can be a problem! Equally, ‘mature candidates’ should not be highlighted. 

Language relating to physical abilities, unless completely necessary for a job, can be judged as discriminating, such as seeking ‘active’ or ‘athletic’ applicants. Putting candidates through reasoning and ability tests which do not related to the job specification are not necessary to performing in the role, could be construed as discriminating against those who don’t speak English as their first language.


No Experience Needed!

While it can be acceptable to advertise a role that demands a minimum level of skills or training for operational purposes, job adverts for candidates with ‘no more than 2-3 years’ experience’ have fallen foul of the standards.

Rather than asking for a certain amount of experience or years spent in a position as a pre-requisite, employers should focus on the required skills.

Aside from needing to be over 18 to sell certain products like alcohol, an individual’s age shouldn’t affect their ability to do a job effectively.

On race, it’s fine to look for a Spanish-speaking account manager, for example, but restricting the position to a ‘Spanish manager’, or ‘a native speaker of Spanish’ can be frowned on.  A requirement to speak a language fluently is all that can be asked, not that English, or any other language, be your first language.


Publish and be Damned!

With discriminatory adverts, it's not only the person who wrote the offending copy that can be in trouble, but also those who publish it. So organisations or groups allowing a job advert to be placed online or in any other media they publish can equally be held responsible.  

Check and double-check all ad copy beforehand, and have it reviewed by a couple of people, because mistakes can be inadvertently made.  Phrasing may be used that others might interpret differently.  So, have a failsafe in place, ideally a recruitment agency that can check to ensure regulations are adhered to.


Unbiased Interviewing

The interview process, in particular, demands experienced HR or recruitment personnel who are properly trained and conscious of questioning that might be termed discriminatory.  While a manager to whom the recruit will report may sit in on interviews, it is not advisable that anyone untrained conducts a job interview, certainly not alone. 

Managing an interview is a specialist skill, and untrained personnel risk inadvertently causing offence which may even constitute discrimination.  

When it comes to potential pitfalls to avoid, any mention of a woman being capable or confident in a male-dominated role or business is ill-advised, and vice versa.  

How an individual would cope with having a younger boss or being the oldest person in the department is also off-limits.

Questions about sickness, health, or disabilities, like how many sick-days you had last year, should be avoided at interview.  

Essentially, questions relating to marriage plans, family intentions, children, age, physical ability, and even distance from work or access to transport should not be asked.

Where personal circumstances may affect performance or the ability to carry out a role, relevant questions should be asked equally of all candidates, and the answers evaluated on the same basis. 

Try to use a ‘statement‐question’ approach, such as ‘this role can require working into the evening; do you have a problem with that?’ but never ‘do you have kids to take care of?’ 

Or ‘this job requires light lifting; would that be a problem?’, rather than ‘are you thinking of getting pregnant?’



Key to transparency in the interview process is making detailed notes on why each candidate was either successful or unsuccessful.  The grounds on which a selection decision was reached, and how different candidates rated under the same criteria related to the role, must be outlined.  And these should be kept for at least a year after the recruitment process. 

Addressing the same pre-determined questions to each candidate is a good starting point, to ensure questions are both appropriate to the role, and fair to candidates.  

With the interview candidates’ permission, interviews can also be recorded, but this would generally be to facilitate review by company personnel unable to attend the interview.  

But the importance of keeping detailed notes and marking schemes in relation to the appointment cannot be overstated.  If an organisation fails to keep records, it will be more difficult for them to prove the selection process was not discriminatory.  Stating that a candidate ‘did a better interview’ is not sufficient!

Also good advice is to give clear well-explained reasons to unsuccessful candidates as to why they were not selected.  Make sure feedback is constructive and covers ability as well as performance in the selection process, so there is doubt why the position wasn’t offered.

A good selection procedure should be driven by the demands and requirements of the role alone; judging candidates based only on their skills and abilities in relation to the job.      

That precondition, alone, is crucial to avoiding discrimination in recruitment. 

Donal O’Donoghue is Managing Director of Sanderson Ireland, which has offices in Dublin and Limerick. Over 20 years in the profession, Donal is Secretary General of the National Recruitment Federation (NRF) and is a member of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce and the Institute of Directors.

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