Work Advice: My company rejected my partner. Was I wrong to call out HR?

Q: My domestic partner has been a contractor at my 50-person workplace for a year. I recommended him for the role, which happens to fit his niche skill-set and experience, when we were short-staffed and needed the help immediately. The role is not in my department and he doesn’t report to me, nor I to him.

Finally this summer, a permanent position was created. He was encouraged to apply by his supervisor but was not interviewed and received a generic rejection email. He feels he was unfairly passed over for a job he’s done well and potentially discriminated against because of who his partner is.

I wrote to my colleagues in HR to say I thought the way they dispatched him was unkind, that I hoped they’d offer him an honest explanation of why he wasn’t really considered, and commit to doing better in the future. I wrote as both a senior manager concerned with our hiring practices in general and a friend of an applicant who had a bad experience with my employer.

They replied with excuses about the timing of his application, including inaccuracies I felt compelled to correct, even though I hadn’t asked them to justify it to me. The exchange only increased my feeling that the whole thing was mismanaged and unjustified.

On their last response, the HR manager bcc’d the director of our organization, our direct boss. The director then responded to both of us saying we both were in the wrong and would be spoken to separately.

As I await my talking-to, I’m curious: Did I do anything illegal or inappropriate? Can HR not be called out for crappy behavior toward applicants/current employees? What’s up with the covert tattling when I was trying to keep it peer-to-peer (although I felt compelled to put it in writing)?

A: I wish this story had ended with your first paragraph. Your employer needed someone; you brought your qualified partner to their attention; he got the gig on his own merit; you stayed out of his work life, aside from carpooling and attending social functions together; everyone worked happily ever after. The end.


I can’t say why your partner wasn’t interviewed for the permanent position. Maybe his performance, despite his glowing self-assessment, was not at the standard they were looking for, or his specialized skills didn’t fill all the needs of the new position.

It’s possible his relationship with you was a strike against him - but then, it didn’t prevent his being hired as a contractor in the first place. Also, while most states prohibit marital and familial status discrimination in hiring, employers generally have the right (and, in the public sector, the obligation) to ensure that marital, romantic or familial connections between employees aren’t disruptive to business and don’t create a conflict of interest.

Presumably, the canned “no thanks” your contractor boyfriend received was the same one HR sent every candidate who didn’t reach the interview stage. A more personalized rejection, in recognition of his existing connection with the company, might have stung less - or it might have looked like favoritism and invited a fruitless debate over why he was rejected.

At any rate, he, not you, should have been the one to ask for feedback. If the issue was that your employer had concerns about his and your personal relationship being disruptive, your testy tête-à-tête with HR has pretty much confirmed it.

Speaking of that, what’s wrong with challenging your own HR department’s methods and pushing it to do better? Nothing, but let’s not pretend you were offering purely objective feedback on best practices to ensure fair treatment of all prospective job candidates.

As for HR covertly looping in the top boss, you can’t criticize another department’s operations and expect it not to escalate the matter, especially if you’re in a senior position. Referring to that as “tattling” tells me you would have preferred to keep your scolding session secret because you knew the director would not approve.

Now, was your HR team also in the wrong? Absolutely, but I don’t think it’s for the same reasons you’re probably thinking.

First, everyone knows problematic emails should either be forwarded under separate cover or discussed offline. Bcc-snitching is so 2002.

Second, HR never should have engaged in detailed discussion about an individual candidate with someone who has no direct professional connection to the candidate or the position being filled. Maintaining professional boundaries despite personal pressure is part of HR’s job. I’m hoping that’s what your director will tell them, anyway.

I won’t try to predict what your director has to say to you, but I recommend you prepare a response along these lines: “I realize I way overstepped my boundaries with HR. My partner was really hoping the company would hire him. When he didn’t get an interview, I let my disappointment get the better of me. I apologize for my lapse in judgment, and I won’t let it happen again.”