Q: I was chatting with one of my bosses the other day about a potential new hire. He let slip that the executive team ultimately did not extend an offer because “we didn’t need another white guy.” He literally said this out loud. I was taken aback.

To be clear, the candidate was eminently qualified, had made it through multiple rounds of interviews, and was the clear favorite among almost everyone who spoke with him. Further, it’s not like he lost out to someone else — they simply didn’t hire him, and the company started the hiring process all over again! This was a position where a person’s ethnicity/sex were completely irrelevant (it is a data analytics job).

As a white guy this bothers me, because if it is true, it is obviously discriminatory. I understand wanting to build a diverse workforce, but this scenario is basically the caricature of diversity hiring. As I’ve thought about it over the past few days, I’ve grown angry. Imagine being a young person, doing well in a series of fairly tough interviews, only to be told “Thanks but no thanks!” Imagine wondering what you did wrong, and not knowing the company took a pass on you because you’re a white guy and they’re worried about optics. It seems clearly illegal, but my boss’s nonchalance suggests he has no idea that this is a rotten way to run a business, and a terrible way to treat people. Am I overreacting?

A: Of course it’s illegal to make a hiring decision based solely on someone’s skin color and/or sex. Presumably your boss knows that — or perhaps he mistakenly thinks it doesn’t apply to members of the majority.

But that’s assuming your boss’s summation is objectively accurate, and not an oversimplification of a more nuanced situation. Yours would not be the first employer to relaunch a search and cast a wider net in the hope of pulling in a candidate with more “wow” factor. And if, as your boss’s comment suggests, a majority of your employer’s workforce, applicants and preferred candidates just happen to all be from one narrow demographic, your employer may be trying to ensure that no bias, overt or systemic, is limiting its choices.

As you note, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is a key goal among many employers. Some, in their efforts to reverse historical inequity, have been accused of perpetuating further discrimination. To be fair, it’s not always clear where the line is, which is why employers need to consult legal and DEI experts to ensure they’re going about it fairly and correctly.

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But it’s not illegal to want your workforce to mirror the diversity of your current and potential client base and end users.

It’s not illegal to want to avoid groupthink and confirmation bias, and to bring in team members whose perspective and experience challenge the status quo.

It’s not illegal to look for signs of exclusionary bias in everything from the language in your job ads to where you target your recruiting efforts.

And even though race and sex may seem irrelevant in a field that runs on ones and zeroes, the fact is that data and technology are only as unbiased as the humans who gather and design them. From medical imaging technology that misses symptoms because it’s been calibrated to light skin tones, to a recruiting AI at Amazon that rejected eminently qualified female applicants, to crime prediction algorithms that inaccurately target Black and Latino faces, we keep seeing evidence that our supposedly “neutral” tools and “universal” metrics carry a legacy of systemic bias. Assembling a more diverse team of humans behind the technology can help prevent those outcomes. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

In short, I can imagine plenty of nondiscriminatory reasons why your employer decided not to settle for the most recent candidate. But it’s possible your employer has some work yet to do on articulating its goals and values.

For example, it’s not clear from your boss’s words whether he’s scornful of diversity, or so committed to the idea that he doesn’t realize he’s crossing a line. It might be worth asking him to clarify. “Do you mean to say we’re specifically rejecting white, male candidates? Isn’t that illegal?”

Even if he’s committed to building a more diverse environment, his offhand remarks give the impression that he thinks making the hiring process more inclusive and competitive means candidates should be considered or disqualified purely on the basis of their demographics, because they’re not expected to be capable of competing on merit. And that line of thought doesn’t benefit anyone.