• Aimee Spencer Tiemann


Don’t count a candidate out because of dated perceptions

In one year, I hired 20 people for a major corporation.

At one point during this process, I had a new executive come in that insisted on sitting in on my interviews. Why? Because I had the lowest turnover rate in the company. He wondered how I did it.

The first day of interviews we had six pre-qualified candidates teed up. Right before the first person walked in the door, this executive turned to me and said, “Always ask them about their family and how they grew up.”

I looked at him puzzled and nervously said, “I don’t think that’s legal. Furthermore, how does that have bearing on their performance?”

He quickly responded, “If a person comes from a broken home, they’re more likely to carry problems with them in their adult life.”

I was speechless.

I don’t know if it was because he used the dated words, “broken home,” or the fact that he was basing someone’s performance on their parents’ decision to part ways and end the marriage.

Determined not to be put off by this, I started the interview with the first candidate. I talked with them about their experience, what they went to school for, the lessons they’ve learned thus far by working for past employers, and what they looked for when accepting a position with a new company.

You see, I always view a new hire as a partnership, not a dictatorship.

My counterpart quickly jumped in and started going right for the candidate’s childhood – were their parents married, do they have siblings, etc. I was horrified and severely uncomfortable. Still, I played it cool. However, the candidate became seemingly disgusted and their body language told me they were no longer interested.

The rest of the day continued down this road of prejudice. Great candidates began to ghost me as soon as the interview ended. They had no interest in continuing the conversation, and rightfully so.

I talked to the human resources department after the day of disaster interviews. I mentioned what these candidates were subjected to. My HR contact was horrified and told me not to include him in further interviews.

But, the executive insisted. And, unfortunately, he outranked me (and my HR contact).

Before the next day of interviews began, I told the executive to leave the childhood conversations to the professionals – as in therapists. I reminded him this line of questioning wasn’t professional and more importantly, illegal.

But he couldn’t help himself. Interview after interview was full of questions about candidates’ childhoods and parental relationships.

At the end of the day, I looked at him and told him he scared 12 great potential employees away from us. He was defensive and said, “Then they weren’t the right fit.”

I fired back, “But they were. All are college graduates, some with extensive experience, test scores through the roof, a high EQ score…but you weren’t focused on any of this because you wanted to make sure they weren’t from a ‘broken home.’”

He looked at me and said, “Look Aimee, they’ll never be like us. We had the privilege of coming from healthy, happy homes, and that’s why we’re so successful.”

I listened, then laughed.

“How do you know my childhood was happy and healthy?” I asked.

He said, “Because you’re a high performer. You work hard, you have a strong work ethic.”

I looked at him and laid the stunner on him.

I firmly said, “I too am from one of your proverbial ‘broken homes.’ Yes, my parents divorced when I was a year and a half. In fact, I don’t ever remember a time when my parents got along.”

He started to backpedal with apologies, then switched his angle, saying I was “one in a million.”

Actually, I’m not. You see, coming from divorced parents gives us kids from a “broken home,” great competitive advantages:

  1. WE come from strong parents. At least one of our parents had to realize that the situation wasn’t healthy enough to raise children in. It could’ve been domestic violence, infidelity, addiction, or differences they just couldn’t get past. Regardless, one of our parents had to venture into very tumultuous territory and we as the children had to ride out the storm.

  2. WE understand what it’s like to feel uncomfortable at a very young age. When I was growing up, I was the ONLY kid in my class with divorced parents. What did that mean? I had to constantly explain to my friends that I was living between two houses and why my mom and dad didn’t live in the same house. I had to explain why mom worked a shift that unfortunately didn’t allow her to pick me up from school and have dinner with me every night.

  3. WE understand a strong work ethic from a very young age. A single-parent salary is hard to live on, even with supplemental child support payments. We learn how to be creative with money at a young age because we’re watching our parents struggle in real time. We realize that we never want this to be our life when we’re old enough to have this responsibility. We also realize what the words “hard working” really mean.

  4. WE had to grow up way faster than our friends with two parents in the house. With divorce comes the court system, a system most children get dragged in and out of, or at least they did when I was young. We’re taught to keep the secrets of one parent so that the other parent wouldn’t give them headaches based on their emotions or how much money they were making. We’re also taught how to have mature conversations at a young age because the judge asks a lot of questions to make the best decision for a child’s well-being.

  5. We’ve been labeled our whole lives, in the family, in the school system and in the church, because our parents have created a “broken home.” My point is we were born into adversity. We’ve been labeled. We’ve been profiled. We’ve been expected to be out of control and broken, when in fact, we just had to find our individuality a lot earlier than most.

To my disappointment, research efforts for this returned little. Scientists have based their findings on POTENTIAL character deficiencies, not performance habits or statistics. From the articles I’ve read, they’re not basing this on real stories or people, they’re basing it on theory centered on dated psychological and sociological predictions.

I started to look up innovators and strong leaders, including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mary Barra. Guess what? Nothing about their parents being married or divorced came up. Why? Because a parent’s relationship never fits in the narrative of their performance. The media, a well-organized company, and fellow high performers don’t seem to care.

As my career and hiring grew within this company, I always kept the “broken home interview model” in mind. I wondered if it held any merit. Wait, let me state that differently – I thought it was bullshit and was looking for evidence I was wrong.

So, I paid attention to what was happening around me. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t see the correlation between high performers and two-parent households.

But my experiment was flawed from the start.

You know why I didn’t see any performance differences? Because I never asked my peers if their parents were married or divorced. It didn’t matter. Their PERFORMANCE told the story, not their familial upbringing.

Of course, there is rich irony in this story. The executive with the “broken home” bias turned out to be in a horrible marriage, plagued with abuse, shame, guilt, and estranged children. I always say, if you listen closely, people will tell you EXACTLY who they are.

Do you have a view on this topic? Please share. I want to learn from your opinion and thoughts here.


Broken Home Aimee