Answering the “What Are You?” Questions

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ayersIf I asked “who are you?”, would you be worried? Most of us answer some form of that question every day — for example, when you call your doctor to make an appointment, and you are asked your name and birth date. As a recruiter, and simply as an office drone, I ask 10 people a day to identify themselves just so I can tell whomever they called to speak with that it’s “Dr. Hassan” on the line. Whether it’s writing an essay on “Who am I?” for Intro to Philosophy, wearing a name tag at a conference, or submitting a résumé for a job opening, we all describe who we are many times to many different people in many different circumstances. Then along come the “what” questions, and the whole complexion of the inquiry changes.

As a recruiter working on behalf of institutions that often receive public money, one of my tasks is to determine the demographics of the people applying for positions. To put it bluntly, my clients need to know how many candidates from underrepresented groups are entering their searches.

The mechanism I use to obtain that information is the classic Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) survey. In the case of our firm, this is an online form with six to eight questions asking applicants to identify their gender, race or ethnicity, and a couple of other specific characteristics, depending on what the client needs to report to the state or federal government.

Finding out this information is incredibly important. In some cases, if there is not enough evidence that the search elicited a broadly diverse applicant pool, the whole recruiting process has to start over. In many instances, this kind of data can affect an institution’s ability to receive public money. In most cases, institutional policy itself calls for assuring that all qualified professionals have the opportunity to consider applying for the position.

Our firm is always careful, as are others, to let candidates know that completing the survey is voluntary and that their specific information will not be personally identifiable, but that their answers are very important to us and to our client. We do everything but beg people to give us the data. Still, many candidates fail to fill out this simple form. Why?

It is difficult not to think that somehow revealing the answers to the “what” questions will tip the scales against us. I hear Caucasian candidates express the belief that saying they are white will put them out of the running, while African American or Hispanic candidates believe revealing their ethnicity will prevent them from being considered for the exact same job. It is hard not to believe — all of my virtuous disclaimers to the contrary — that we recruiters and our clients are not sitting around matching up EEO data with résumés and putting Xs on the ones we want to eliminate on the grounds of ethnicity, gender, disability, or some other specific characteristic. It’s also hard to accept that, with all this juicy data sitting there waiting to be used to discriminate against someone, no one is picking and choosing who advances in a search based on his or her personal agenda. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

Whether you are black or white, male or female, old — like me — or young as a spring chicken, it may help to know that everyone else who is applying for that job you would love to have feels just as insecure and paranoid as you do about sharing the “what” of who they are.

So here are the things you need to look for: First, no one should require you to fill out EEO data in order to participate in a search. Compliance is supposed to be voluntary. Second, the employer or the search firm should offer you assurance, preferably in writing, that your data will not be personally identifiable but will be aggregated anonymously with that of other candidates. (There are exceptions to this, but they are few and far between, and you should ask for a complete explanation.) Third, the data you provide should go to the human resources department, not to whomever is doing the selecting, like a search committee. In a best-case scenario, the data won’t go anywhere until after the search closes. If those factors are in place, you should feel safe sharing your “whats,” knowing that you are providing critical data for the employer, the recruiter, and society at large, which will have an impact when it comes to public policy and public spending.

For most searches, there will be one winner and a bunch of qualified, wonderful, capable runners-up. When you find yourself on the sideline watching someone else get the gold medal, it may be tempting to wonder whether revealing your “whats” cost you the job, but there is a simple and pragmatic truth about discrimination and the hiring process: If an employer is going to discriminate based on race, gender, age, or another factor, they don’t need an EEO form for evidence of these characteristics. Sooner or later, they will meet you and decide for themselves.

I can’t make you believe it, but from inside the hiring process, let me assure you that in 15 years, I have never seen an example of an individual eliminated from a search because of a “what” that showed up on an EEO form. I think most recruiters and employers are right there with me. ●

Vicky Ayers is the senior director for executive recruitment at RPA Inc. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. If you have a question, email her at