Author Topic: A thought experiment  (Read 762 times)

Doktor Howl

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A thought experiment
« on: April 27, 2022, 01:08:23 am »
Okay, so let's assume you own or are the CEO of a business that is intrinsically dangerous.  Let's say it's a steel mill.

Your engineering department is small and entirely or almost entirely white.  Because it's always been that way.

Your floor employees are disproportionately people of color.

An engineer retires, and you are now critically short-handed.  You get two resumes on your desk.  One is from a white dude with 20 years of experience, and the other is a black dude with a rock solid set of scores in engineering school but no practical experience.  You have the budget to hire one of them.

Affirmative Action gives you incentive to hire the black dude, who is also cheaper due to his lack of experience, but he's more or less on his own.  If he makes mistakes, the people on the floor (again, mostly POC) will be exposed to additional risk to life and limb.  Which is no small thing in a steel mill.

If you hire the white dude, his experience makes him cost more but there is less risk to the floor employees, but you have once again established that your upper echelons are white, and will remain so until the next engineer retires, whereupon you will be faced with the same dilemma.

What is the ethical solution?

« Last Edit: April 27, 2022, 01:17:50 am by Doktor Howl »
Molon Lube

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Re: A thought experiment
« Reply #1 on: April 27, 2022, 01:37:52 am »
If you can devise a way to test how the two will perform under pressure, that'd solve the problem of selection involving risk. It won't necessarily solve the problem of an all-white engineering staff, but at least you'll know it wasn't a decision made that has anything to do with race (which isn't BETTER, but does show you tried to avoid it at least). And it opens up tantalizing new possibilities, like "I wouldn't actually trust either of these guys near anything sharper than a butter knife".

I'm reminded of a bit from Ignition!, by John Clark. He'd invite new applicants into his office, then have an assistant set off a loud chemical reaction behind them while they were invited to look closely at something. If they jumped ten feet and knocked water on the cat, no good, cut 'em loose. If they managed to stay calm, they'd be a good fit for the rocket business. I don't know what work you're doing, but if you can find a way to make a similar test, to create sudden, job-relevant panic in a controlled environment, you're probably on track.

It's unorthodox, but it's the best answer I got.
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Doktor Howl

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Re: A thought experiment
« Reply #2 on: April 27, 2022, 01:41:52 am »
If you can devise a way to test how the two will perform under pressure, that'd solve the problem of selection involving risk. It won't necessarily solve the problem of an all-white engineering staff, but at least you'll know it wasn't a decision made that has anything to do with race (which isn't BETTER, but does show you tried to avoid it at least). And it opens up tantalizing new possibilities, like "I wouldn't actually trust either of these guys near anything sharper than a butter knife".

I'm reminded of a bit from Ignition!, by John Clark. He'd invite new applicants into his office, then have an assistant set off a loud chemical reaction behind them while they were invited to look closely at something. If they jumped ten feet and knocked water on the cat, no good, cut 'em loose. If they managed to stay calm, they'd be a good fit for the rocket business. I don't know what work you're doing, but if you can find a way to make a similar test, to create sudden, job-relevant panic in a controlled environment, you're probably on track.

It's unorthodox, but it's the best answer I got.

I don't want to employ people that don't react to explosions.   :sad:

It seems like a sure-fire recipe for the wrong kind of hilarity.
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Re: A thought experiment
« Reply #3 on: April 27, 2022, 02:25:16 am »
Yeah, but you're not in the rocket biz. The idea is to look for the characteristics you actually want, in an unexpected, time sensitive situation -- the Ignition! anecdote is just the example that came to mind. I don't have specific suggestions for your situation, they're going to be hugely dependent on your company, the position, the work being done, and the attitude required. But if you can find a way to get usable information on those necessary characteristics, that seems the most fair and safety-conscious approach.

Better than gambling with raw experience, too. Could be mister Twenty Years has never had something go catastrophically wrong, or dealt with a dickhanded moron fucking up everything they need to do, or whatever variety of exciting failure is relevant to you.
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Re: A thought experiment
« Reply #4 on: April 27, 2022, 02:53:56 am »
Yeah, but you're not in the rocket biz. The idea is to look for the characteristics you actually want, in an unexpected, time sensitive situation -- the Ignition! anecdote is just the example that came to mind. I don't have specific suggestions for your situation, they're going to be hugely dependent on your company, the position, the work being done, and the attitude required. But if you can find a way to get usable information on those necessary characteristics, that seems the most fair and safety-conscious approach.

Better than gambling with raw experience, too. Could be mister Twenty Years has never had something go catastrophically wrong, or dealt with a dickhanded moron fucking up everything they need to do, or whatever variety of exciting failure is relevant to you.

I'm just saying, I bet every engineer in the area jumped 3 feet up when the Vanguard launch went bad.
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Re: A thought experiment
« Reply #5 on: April 27, 2022, 03:18:05 am »
Hiring new employees always has some element of risk; the guy with 20 years of experience could still be a dud.  But, that's not a useful hypothetical, since any new hire is a gamble, regardless.

If the black dude was the only resume you got, would you hire him?  Does his lack of experience increase risk significantly, or only slightly?  What about the personalities of the applicants; experience aside, is there any way to determine which one is more likely to have a safety-minded work ethic?

I don't think the race of the people on the floor should be a significant factor.  My monkey brain says "maybe the black dude will get along better with the floor employees, or feel more responsibility towards them"... but that's racist/tribalist bullshit, and my monkey brain needs to SHUT UP.

Less "human ethical", and more "corporate ethical"...how much extra is your inexperienced engineer likely to cost you in accidents/errors/training while he's coming up to speed, and will his lower initial salary make up for that?  (I'm guessing not, it's just another thing to think about).
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Re: A thought experiment
« Reply #6 on: April 27, 2022, 09:56:30 am »
Hrm, doesn't it depend on the role? If the engineer was responsible for critical systems, was there an expectation of familiarity with those kind of systems or a proven record of responsibility with them?

When we are hiring, its the right person for the right job, unfortunately with software devs: the resume doesn't matter a shite, anyone can put a shopping list of technologies on it. Sometimes years of experience don't show it either, you often get people who on the resume looks like they were working on some complex systems where in fact they might have been pigeonholed into a small task role. Even personality isnt often a good indicator beyond people skills and communication: have had people in interviews who come off as strong communicators but when put to the test are donkey's when it comes to making something.

What we do is a small project, done on the candidates own time, which tests a few common dev skills they would be using in the job. It is the number one way we judge candidates ability and I haven't seen a better way to do it yet, could something like that apply to your two candidates?


The other thing you said that sticks out in my mind is the responsibility of the role: I wouldn't ever put a graduate on a product that carries high risk unless they can show their approach with similar risky work (volunteer projects, github portfolios etc instead of employment).

What you can end up getting then though is a fear of hiring people without experience and stagnation in the industry (people only hire tried and tested people as opposed to those fresh out of college), so its really important to have multiple roles:
Roles for graduates
Roles for intermediates
Roles for very experienced seniors.

On race: I prefer to hire the best candidate for a given job (this does not always mean having experience but its definitely weighted that way, the ones with experience and ability that did not get the job have effectively talked themselves out of the job in the interview by raising red flags).
But to not address race and the difference in the role would be misleading: For us, anyone coming in from a non EU country they need to get a critical skills Visa, this creates overhead for the company up front BUT it is a pair of handcuffs: the candidate cannot work at another company without starting the visa application process again, it effectively means if you get someone good from abroad you are guaranteed to have them for the 4 years of their visa, in an industry with high turnover as such it is a benefit to the candidate. However if you were to put two candidates in front of me with similar experience and ability and one comes via critical skills visa I wouldn't use that as a deciding factor, it wouldn't be fair on either of them.

But you could argue there is a bias in there, subconsciously, because our dev team is a mix of about 50% Non EU to 50% EU. However that is pretty much in line with the proportions on applications we get.



On the ethics of the thought experiment:
For me in the example you have given, safety would trump all, so if the guy had no experience I wouldn't be hiring him for the job, just as I wouldn't if any of the the experienced guys referees came back saying he was sloppy or cut corners in working.

I have the privilege of not having much interest in race in hiring, and get the benefit of all candidates competing on skill alone. However that may not be the case in the US based on its history: I know America is a country that for a long time removed the opportunities for black people in desirable roles, so it would be ethically good to do something towards helping reduce that imbalance first, make a level playing field before asking all candidates to compete, but even that is secondary to the ethics of safety.
If you have multiple roles you can tackle both, if you cant have both (cheating the thought experiment), safety through demonstrated ability with the risky system trumps all.

If this is a real scenario and you want to hire someone to support affirmative action, create a graduate role for the graduate, or wait for enough resumes to come in with a black candidate with experience comparable so there is a good pool of candidates to compete.
« Last Edit: April 27, 2022, 11:32:12 am by Faust »
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Re: A thought experiment
« Reply #7 on: April 27, 2022, 09:58:31 am »

I don't think the race of the people on the floor should be a significant factor.  My monkey brain says "maybe the black dude will get along better with the floor employees, or feel more responsibility towards them"... but that's racist/tribalist bullshit, and my monkey brain needs to SHUT UP.

yeah, thats a bias: "We hired the guy because he speaks Black, which most of our floor staff speak"
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