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Hiring the Gang Member Gone Straight

April 1, 1996
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Related Topics: Candidate Sourcing, Ethics, Featured Article
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The Dilemma:
You are the HR director for a high-end department store in Los Angeles. Your current focus is to hire an assistant buyer. This person will be in frequent communication with offices of designers in Europe and New York and will assist the sportswear buyer in determining trends and choosing merchandise. Marie is your top candidate by far, but you have reservations. In her favor, she has a degree in fashion design, speaks some French and Italian and has worked for two of Beverly Hills’ trendiest boutiques. But on the flip side, she grew up in a tough neighborhood and although well-dressed, you’ve noticed a few small tattoos on one hand—a possible sign of gang membership.

Your in-house recruiters have given her the thumbs-up after a standard background check. Should you accept Marie’s embarrassed explanation that the markings are from a time long ago when belonging to the neighborhood gang seemed like her only choice? Or should you give in to your fears and continue searching for someone else?

Readers Respond:
Not providing Marie with this new op-portunity because she "grew up in a tough neighborhood" and has "a few small tattoos on one hand" is ridiculous. Marie apparently has a good work record, passed the background check, admitted her past (I repeat, past) gang affiliations and is obviously qualified for the job. So what’s the problem?

Are we, as HR managers, never to forgive and forget—even after an employee has distinguished herself on the job? In this scenario, it appears that Marie’s past gang membership occurred before she joined this company. So, we should hold that against her? Is Marie being accused of doing anything wrong?

Most of her work is going to be by phone, although the occasional meeting is sure to come up. So the argument that these small tattoos are unsightly and, therefore, can negatively affect her professional appearance is null and void.

This dilemma isn’t a dilemma at all.
Mark J. O’Brien
Human Resources Manager
Remediation Technologies Inc.
Concord, Massachusetts

I found the dilemma in the February 1996 issue of Personnel Journal very interesting because I was faced with a similar situation while with another employer several years ago. We resolved the problem by asking the prospective employee whether he would be interested in either removing the tattoo or having another tattoo drawn on top of the gang tattoo at his expense to get the position. He thought the removal would be too costly, so he opted to have another tattoo drawn on top of the gang sign. The result was a tattoo of a flower that looked very benign and ordinary and carried no gang message. As far as I know there has been no problem with the employee since he was hired.
Michael Salkowski
Director of Personnel/Admin. Svcs
School District of South Milwaukee
South Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Having been in retail for 20 years before starting my own company, I have very mixed feelings on the issue you present to us. In the retail corporate world, re-cruiters are put under undue stress when it comes to filling open jobs due to the high turnover rate in the industry. So it doesn’t surprise me to see that the corporate re-cruiters gave this young lady the thumbs up. They probably would have given the thumbs up to someone a lot less qualified for this position if the references came in good. In the retail world, you don’t have to be an expert in the job function, and in the case of an assistant buyer (or in the industry, they call them gofers) all you need is to be able to work an exorbitant number of hours to get the job done. But to answer your question, the HR manager does have a couple of options. First: Do a more thorough investigative background check to ensure that this applicant did not, in fact, have any gang-related activity in her past, or anything else out of the ordinary.

Second: Give the applicant a pre-em-ployment test to measure certain personality traits that might show signs of dishonesty. And finally, what I recommend all my clients do in making the final offer is arrange a 90-day probationary period, with monthly reviews. This ensures the candidate is going to put his or her best foot forward for you, and it gives you an opportunity to terminate the employee if she doesn’t live up to the standards you expect. Just be sure that if you want to terminate this employee, you do so within the 90-day period. So, to answer your question: Yes, I would hire the applicant because the reality in the retail industry is that if you don’t hire her, your competition will. And in this case, with this applicant’s background, they probably would.
Michael Ferraro
Human Resource Consultant
Training Solutions
Chantilly, Virginia

A review of the information at hand re-veals the following:

  1. Marie is by far the top candidate
  2. Marie has a degree in fashion design
  3. She speaks some French and Italian
  4. She has job experience and performance success in two of Beverly Hills’ trendiest boutiques.

The fact that she grew up in a tough neighborhood seems to have little to do with her current job and job performance. Many individuals—in fact, perhaps some reading this column—may have had various obstacles or failures in their past. We should be more interested in the current performance and potential of all contributors than in some veiled or assumed problems in their childhood.

The small tattoos on one hand may perhaps be a sign of previous gang affiliation, but by themselves they’re no clear indication of continuing gang contact. These tattoos may be a sad but continuing reminder to Marie of the past she left long ago. If there’s concern about how other employees and designers will view Marie when they notice the tattoos, perhaps waterproof makeup, jewelry or even removal are options. I think Marie should be hired based on her abilities and not penalized for the possible mistakes of her past.
Susan Kubiak
Manager Human Resources
Mallinckrodt Medical Imaging
Angleton, Texas

I would accept Marie’s explanation regarding the tattoos. However, I would question that "standard background check." Find out just how thorough the check was before you make a hiring decision. You even may want to talk with Marie’s former employers yourself, as well as the school where she received her fashion design degree. Additionally, I would let Marie know that your company does a thorough background check on all job applicants and evaluate her reaction. Then if everything checks out, I would not hesitate to offer her the job.
Henry J. Mengay
Human Resources Manager
WNED-TV
Buffalo, New York

Personnel Journal, April 1996, Vol. 75, No. 4, pp. 147-151.

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