As recruiters and HR professionals, we're often immersed in employment equity and affirmative action initiatives and challenges. The strides that have been made in reducing gender pay differences and in building diverse workforces have made our organizations and countries stronger, better places. We've also learned that in customer-facing industries, a workforce that reflects the makeup of the population is often very good for business.

Most would agree that it's acceptable for organizations in some industries, in some cases, to proactively build a customer-facing workforce that reflects the racial, gender and ethnic/cultural makeup of its customers. But in considering candidates' broader range of attributes in this manner, we open the door to some of the usually unspoken facets of selection. Consider some recent examples that have made headlines or been challenged in courts.

  • 1. If large numbers of female patients feel more comfortable consulting a female obstetrician or gynaecologist, does this justify the hospital's giving preference to female obstetricians when hiring? The courts say yes.
  • 2. If female waiters sell more food and beverage in a restaurant, where 70% of the patrons are men, is it acceptable for the owner to discriminate against men for these positions? Congress says yes.
  • 3. If the audience for an NBA franchise is 85% white, is it acceptable to proactively recruit a team that more fully reflects this racial makeup? Former superstar Larry Bird says yes. In June 2004, Bird made headlines by proclaiming, in an ESPN roundtable discussion with Magic Johnson, that more white, high-profile NBA stars would be "good for a fan base because as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America", and the NBA lacks "enough" white superstars.

Few would have trouble with the first example. Where a person's most delicate and private health issues are concerned, their comfort is critical. Many will be offended by the second example. Why should a person's gender and attractiveness affect their eligibility for a restaurant position and why should I sympathize with someone who wants to ogle the person who brings them their beer? Ironically, the third example is sure to cause the most outrage, even though it most closely resembles the initiatives described in the first and second paragraphs. We view our professional sports leagues as examples of pure merit, the best succeed regardless of superficial attributes. No one wants to pay to see second-rate professional athletes.

In attempting to expand its appeal worldwide, however, is it wrong for the Houston Rockets to fully leverage the attributes of their 7'-5" Chinese superstar Yao Ming? Ming is undoubtedly talented; he started in the 2003 NBA all-star game. But it would be naive to assume his appeal to the Rockets and the NBA ends there. The fact that he has sparked enormous interest in a market of a billion people in China cannot be lost on the NBA front office. Steve Sailer, the controversial founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute says Ming's popularity "translates into all sorts of NBA-licensed [merchandise] they can sell to the China market."

A U.S. restaurant chain famous for hiring attractive wait staff says criticisms against it are as ridiculous as saying the NFL exploits men who are big and fast. It contends that its wait staff has the same right to use their natural female sex appeal to earn a living as do super models Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell. Again, Congress and the courts seem to agree.

In the business world, most of us understand that the competition is so tough that hiring the best possible person for each position is imperative. Nepotism, racism, sexism and the rest are barriers to success not only because they're offensive and detrimental to an employer's brand, but because they severely limit the range of candidates for positions. Still, the deciding factor between two equally skilled people is often determined by attributes we don't always explicitly acknowledge. As we've seen, in retail, an employer might proactively select sales associates and cashiers that reflect his or her customer profile and this could be based on age, gender or race.

If I'm starting an operation in a country with an activist government and I have a choice between an industry guru and acknowledged top-flight manager versus a competent but less-skilled and experienced candidate who happens to be the industry minister's nephew, who do I choose?

If I'm a pharmaceutical company that depends on its sales reps' ability to reach physicians, I'll hire knowledgeable reps that have relevant education and experience. But because the physician population has traditionally been 80%+ male in North America, the stereotype of the attractive female pharmaceutical sales rep persists.

Is this wrong? Perhaps, but rather than interfere with employers' rights to choose (and make mistakes) in this regard, the courts tend to protect them, which, considering the alternative, is probably the right approach. Checks and balances exist. Society moves on and makes corrections. It is much more common today to see a senior product manager staffing a trade show booth than an attractive twenty-something; and when was the last time an airline promoted itself based on the sex appeal of its "stewardesses"?

As organizations, we shouldn't always follow the herd, short-term thinking might lead us to hire the nephew of the industry minister (and sometimes that's the right choice). Long-term thinking gauges the trends in consumer and societal attitudes, giving the drug company that breaks the mold, for example, an early advantage over its competitors.

Got a comment on this topic? Post your thoughts in the Inc. Forums.