Bruce Burroughs, of Vista Farming in Merced, discriminates when he selects employees, and he is proud of it. Of course, Bruce knows that it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of such "protected" characteristics as sex, race, color, religion, age (40 or older), national origin, and disability. Bruce knows, however, that he is not required to hire unqualified workers.
He is even required by law to discriminate based on legal eligibility for employment in the United States, by checking documents presented by applicants and completing the I-9 form (even if filling out such a form does little toward eliminating undocumented workers).
In terms of unlawful discrimination, one can distinguish—to use the language of the courts—between (1) disparate treatment and (2) adverse impact. Outright discrimination, or disparate treatment, involves treating people differently on the basis of a protected attribute. Practices that appear unbiased on the surface may also be illegal if they have adverse impact, that is, if they yield discriminatory results unrelated to future job performance. For instance, requiring a high school diploma for tractor drivers might unreasonably eliminate more nonwhite applicants from job consideration.
Clearly, it is wise to refuse employment to unqualified, or less qualified, applicants regardless of their age, sex, national origin, disability, or the like. A systematic selection process can help in legally discriminating among poor, average, and superior applicants.
Necessity can often be the catalyst for haphazard selection processes. When your milker leaves, you may have a choice between hiring the applicant who just drove up to the barn or taking the shift yourself. Such a casual approach sometimes yields excellent results. "A while back I got lucky when I hired someone the traditional way," Bruce recalled. "This person worked out so well that I thought it would always be this easy." But as Bruce found out some time later, good luck runs out eventually under a chance approach to hiring. Another dairy farmer once lamented, "Half an hour after I hired the last milker, I knew he was the slowest employee I've ever had. And what is worse, the milker sold his home and moved up here to work for us. That was three months ago. I feel guilty about just letting him go, and I don't know what to do."
While Bruce has not done this poorly with his previous hires, he became interested in trying a more systematic approach after his brother, Ward, had success with one. Ward had set up seven practical tests, "job samples," as part of a careful process for hiring a mechanic a year ago.
Bruce started his search for a cow feeder by placing an ad in several newspapers. The ad was designed to inform potential applicants about the type of operation they would work at, the benefits of working in a farm area, and other details about the job. Bruce feels he may have been a bit too informative, or placed too many ads, as he obtained 300 applications within two weeks. He chose to stop accepting applications even though he had paid for ads that would run another week.
Bruce dreamed about what skills would make for a superior employee, based on the job content and his style of operation. He looked for someone he could communicate with in writing as well as orally; a person with good cow sense and good with farm machinery. Once he had figured out what qualities he wanted in a cow feeder, Bruce mailed to prospective applicants further information about the job, the dairy operation, and the desired qualifications. He wanted to provide a balanced, realistic job preview that would enable applicants to assess whether the position would meet their financial, emotional, and social needs. He thought that if they could make informed decisions as to whether to apply, they would be more likely later to accept the job, stay in it, and succeed.
Applicants were then invited to a group pre-interview session or applicant orientation. Applicants were given a choice of coming at either 1:00 or 3:00 p.m. About 60 individuals decided to take this opportunity. When they arrived at the ranch, applicants in each group received an orientation talk, a tour of the operation (including the housing area), and a short pencil-and-paper test related to the job requirements. Bruce used the written test as a relatively cheap tool for obtaining information to initially sort out applicants. It could be administered to many people at the same time and was easy to score.
Bruce decided to invite the top 20 applicants (based on the written test) to participate in the next stage of his selection process—a job sample (practical test) and interview day. If none of the 20 turned out to meet his standards, he could always invite the next 20. He needed only one good calf feeder, however.
Bruce set aside two days in which applicants would be asked to come and demonstrate their skills with equipment and cows. With the help of his wife Barbara, brother, herdsman, and other dairy personnel, he designed three practical test stations where applicants would perform tasks representative of what they would have to do on the job. At the first station, the task was to load 300 pounds of haylage from a pit onto a mix wagon with a front end loader. At the next, applicants were to drive a mixer forward and then back it up over a prescribed course. At the final station, each applicant had to herd a fresh set of three cows through a series of fences. Each station was manned by trusted farm personnel who would evaluate applicants on a prescribed scale. After finishing all three parts of this practical test, each applicant would go to the office for an interview.
Before the first applicant ever set foot on the ranch for the practical test, Bruce and his team pre-tested each job sample station. Using "volunteer" applicants from among the employees and family, the team of evaluators observed to see where the tests had to be modified or adapted, and they discussed how to score different levels of performance consistently. It was decided that applicants would be scored on their ability to follow instructions, the precautions they took, task-specific skills, and general communication skills.
Applicants varied enormously in their performance on the practical tests, and not always in expected ways. Some started by hunting for the ignition key in the front end loader; others directly asked where it was. One applicant had to take three trips to get enough silage, while most others did it in a single trip. Another banged the front end loader a bit too hard on the mixer. One of the best showings on the front end loader test was by an applicant who first asked if there was a Murphy switch, turned the equipment on and off with no trouble, and drove it very smoothly.
Applicants also varied widely in the skill they demonstrated at the next station, driving the mixer. One man was excused from finishing the test after he failed to back up in a straight line and raised fear that the machine would end up in the cow pens. Some applicants offered to check under the hood for liquid levels before starting the mixer, while others just hopped on and went.
At the last station, the herdsman instructed the applicants as to which gates they were to leave open and which closed. This clever test appeared simple to those who were good. As one of the applicants calmly herded the cows through the fences, the herdsman leaned over and told an observer, "Don't be deceived, this guy is so good he makes it look easy." One particularly skilled applicant made exceptional use of the gates and appeared to have an easy time, even though the muddy ground had made it difficult for some other applicants to simply walk the course. An applicant got stuck after closing himself in with all the cows. Another stopped and seemed to wonder if he should go back to get a cow that had escaped him or first take the two cows still with him to the last corral.
When finished with the practical tests, applicants were asked a prepared series of interview questions by Bruce and Barbara back at the office. At the end of two grueling days, Bruce tallied up and studied results of all the practical tests and interviews. He identified three top candidates, and then called references on them to learn a bit more. After weighing everything he knew about the job and these three applicants, he made a choice and extended an offer to one, contingent on the applicant's passing a job-related medical evaluation and pre-employment drug test. The applicant passed these tests, accepted the offer, and has now been on the job for one month.
Bruce is planning to hire another cow feeder, and having gone through the process to select one so recently he may extend an offer to the next best applicant without putting any more effort into recruitment. Other farmers who have had time to evaluate the effectiveness of the selection process, including Bruce's brother Ward, are delighted with the capacity of this selection approach to discriminate among poor, average, and superior applicants. One farm manager has predicted that this approach will one day become the industry norm. Another rancher says that he will hire all his future employees through this type of process.