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Crain's Detroit Business
March 16, 1998

Author Questions Employment Laws

Robert Sherefkin

Detroit native Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, is the author of The Excuse Factory: How Employment Law Is Paralyzing the American Workplace. He argues that companies cannot hire sensibly because job tests or probing questions might violate antidiscrimination laws. The result, says Olson, is a paralysis that serves no one. He was in town last week to speak at the Renaissance Club. He also was a guest of Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, a Southfield nonprofit group created to fight frivolous suits.

How is employment law paralyzing the American economy?

We have created so many laws that affect the hiring and firing that many managers feel as though they cannot make rational choices without ''papering the file.'' Most hiring managers are aware of what they can and cannot ask a job candidate. If you ask a question such as ''Do you live around here?'' it could seen as asking about national origin.

How is it that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can demand that companies hire felons?

The EEOC has long considered it unlawful for an employer to have a general policy of turning away persons charged with or convicted of serious crimes. In a 1989 case, it demanded that a trucking company hire felons to handle ''high-risk freight'' such as computer equipment. EEOC lost that particular case in federal court, and the trial judge noted that if the applicants did ''not want to be discriminated against because they have been convicted of theft, then they should stop stealing.'' But that ruling set no precedent.

How can such policies be considered discriminatory?

Because of something called ''disparate impact.'' That means that because such hiring practices disproportionately exclude members of certain groups from being hired, they may be viewed as discrimination.

You say the American legal system backs criminals' hiring rights. Why?

It gives protection to people who many of us feel don't deserve protection.

Why don't employers stand up and challenge these laws and regulations?

There is a big cost to fighting back against such policies—and there is a risk of a big back-pay award. It is a destructive thing for both sides. For the employee, it can end friendships and make it unlikely that he or she will work again in that industry in the same city.

Coming Up

Former Detroit Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson will be the speaker at the next Crain's Motor City Sports Club luncheon at 11:30 a.m. April 15 at the Fairlane Club in Dearborn. Special tickets are $40, including lunch and an autographed copy of Anderson's autobiography, They Call Me Sparky. Regular tickets are $25. For information, call (313) 446-0300.

©1998 Crain's Detroit Business

Visit The Excuse Factory webpage



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