My boss (the sole owner of a business with ~70 employees) asked me to find, interview, and hire him a secretary. This is one of my competencies and, therefore, not a request I was surprised by. He never had a secretary before.

However, when I asked what to aim for (I have no idea what they will have to do in the role as he never had a secretary before) he answered with a gender, maximum age, multiple physical attributes and an "unwavering determination to follow orders". He did not mention any traditional qualifications, such as a degree. He also said the maximum salary he was willing to pay them and it was substantial. For perspective, they would have one of the highest salaries in the company (I happen to know somewhat accurately what everyone makes here), earning about the same as an experienced lawyer.

Given that they won't be an actor or a model, I think their appearance shouldn't matter. Thus, I couldn't find legitimate reasons for these requirements.

How to handle these inappropriate candidate selection instructions? Should I just trudge on and hire him what he wants? Should I report this to some competent authority? I have nothing in writing, he also avoids emailing. Questioning his motivations is not a good course of action, as he often gets angry when he's asked questions.

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    @joeqwerty Under UK law, all of the gender, age and physical characteristic requirements are illegal, which to me is the bare minimum definition of "inappropriate". – Philip Kendall Jan 17 at 10:52
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    This bears an uncanny resemblance to the "New Secretary" episode of Hancock's Half Hour. That's a sitcom, not a documentary. Are you sure your boss wasn't joking? – Daniel Hatton Jan 21 at 18:02

How to handle these inappropriate candidate selection instructions? Should I just trudge on and hire him what he wants?

Ask your boss to write down the list of requirements, and hire based on those requirements.

If you think those requirements are discriminatory and illegal, then tell your boss and ask for clarification. - You can't be expected to hire someone if you don't know what/why the person is needed.

If your boss gets angry with you for asking these questions, then I strongly suggest you find a new job. In the meantime ask, let your boss get angry. Just ignore it and stay professional.

Discrimination isn't black and white, and it gets complicated. eg. Hiring someone based on gender isn't always illegal discrimination. It depends.

If your boss can't explain why those requirements are necessary, or doesn't revise the requirements, then you have to say:

Sorry, I'm not comfortable hiring someone based on this, as I believe it's discrimination.

You are well within your rights to do this, and in the UK you're pretty well protected. If the boss punishes, or fires you for refusing, then see a lawyer.

Should I report this to some competent authority?

Only you can make that decision.

Regardless, you yourself should not hire anyone based on illegal discrimination, as that makes you liable, even if your boss told you to do it.

(I'm not a lawyer, so just assuming you would be liable, maybe you wont be, but if there's no paper trail and the company is accused of discrimination, you can be sure the boss will point the finger at you)


Assuming you want to keep your job, stay on good terms with your boss and don't involve lawyers (which would certainly be detrimental to the first two goals), do the best you can in this situation. You were never told you cannot find a well qualified secretary.

Find out what qualifies a secretary where you live, interview all that apply and out of that pool find the 2-5 that are best qualified for the job. Since your boss has to work with that person every day, your boss should have the final say. Schedule interviews with the few candidates you screened and found acceptable and let you boss decide on one of them.

If your boss complains about your selection, tell them that this selection has to be "fair" or otherwise you would be sued.

If your boss happens to chose the classy looking blonde with the big eyes that you thought was the least qualified of all the well qualified candidates, it's still a good candidate.

Quite frankly, since your boss is actually working with that person on a daily basis, it's less of an issue. Yes, if the company would only hire young blonde females in general, that would be highly discriminatory. If your boss can work better with a specific person that happens to be young, blonde and female, that's up for your boss to decide.

I'm not even sure that it would be discriminatory at all. Given that your boss set "no qualifications necessary" as the baseline for the job, it would be hard to argue that someone was picked for discriminatory reasons over someone more qualified. How could you be "more qualified" in a job that needs no qualifications?

I find it way more disturbing that your boss wants no part in the hiring process. What if you had picked someone he cannot stand for their secretary? This is not a job where you have to endure that person for a weekly status meeting. This is daily communication.

So to make a long story short: pick some qualified candidates and let your boss pick from them. Your boss needs to work with that person directly every day, so your boss should decide who it should be. And it's none of your business why your boss picked the exact person that ends up being their overpaid, probably slightly bored trophy.

  • Elegant and professional. +1 – Theo Tiger Jan 20 at 21:13

How I would like to think I would handle this:

  1. Get my CV up to date.
  2. Find another job.
  3. Resign.
  4. Tell the boss exactly what I thought of him on the way out the door.

In reality, I'd probably chicken out from doing step 4. My primary goal until I could accomplish step 3 would be to cover my ass to ensure that I didn't get dragged into any legal action around the clearly illegal hiring practices. While you may not have e-mailed instructions, you can always ask your boss to confirm them, something like:

Hi Boss.

Just making sure I've got the requirements for the secretary role we discussed earlier correct:

  1. Must be <gender>.
  2. Must have <physical attributes>.
  3. Must not be more the <some> years old.
  4. [ ... ]

I will proceed with a search on this basis unless you say otherwise.


Not Margaret

and then forward a copy of that e-mail to your personal account, along with a note stating you know these requirements are illegal. That then gives you a paper trail, both to protect yourself and to use if you do decide to take any further action about this.

The even more nuclear option would be to report the discrimination while still working for your employer. In theory, this would be covered by UK whistleblower legislation but you can still expect it to be the end of your employment, and I very much doubt your employer is going to respect the whistleblower protection, so I'd put a small amount of money on you ending up in a employment tribunal yourself if you did this.

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    My understanding is that it's the employee (the company) not the individuals who are liable under UK employment law. IANAL – matt freake Jan 17 at 13:25
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    If I email him a question, he will come over to my desk and tell me not to email when I can just come over. He will certainly not reply by email, as he will either be OOO (and not care until he comes back) or just walk over to my desk and talk face to face. – Not Margaret Thatcher Jan 17 at 13:30
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    I wouldn't jump to conclusion that what OP boss wants qualifies as discrimination, there may or may not be valid business reasons for those physical attributes to fulfill the job as just because you want someone looking X doesn't mean it's discrimination. There probably aren't valid reasons in this specific case, but there may be. But I agree with the first part to find a new job. – Tymoteusz Paul Jan 17 at 13:36
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    @NotMargaretThatcher That's your guess though, and you don't state anything concrete in your post either. Of course you do as you wish, but shouting discrimination, and then finding out that you were wrong (or just unable to prove it), can lead to a disaster. – Tymoteusz Paul Jan 17 at 13:39
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    @TymoteuszPaul The allowed reasons for gender discrimination in UK law are very limited, and basically come down to not much more than "has close personal contact with members of one gender" (e.g. personal carers). Trying to claim any of the requirements here for a secretarial/receptionist type role would get the book thrown at you in the employment tribunal in about 10 seconds flat. – Philip Kendall Jan 17 at 13:54

I think this is another situation where David Graeber's book Bullshit Jobs gives some useful insights. I will start with the observation that neither your boss nor you seem to have an idea why your boss actually needs a secretary. Therefore maybe your boss just thinks that because he has a ~70 person company he needs to have a secretary to be taken seriously by his peers. In other words not much actual work from this secretary is expected, he/she is just needed as a status symbol, or what David Graeber calls a flunky. So in this case the physical attributes of the secretary might not be that unimportant as you think.

I think if you want to both please your boss and protect the company from future sexual harassment suits you can do the following.

  • Find a secretary of the desired gender and whose physical attributes would satisfy the boss.

  • He/she should definitely not have a "unwavering determination to follow orders" but instead be a mentally (and perhaps even physically strong) person and be able to easily ward off any unwanted advances from your boss.

  • Since he/she is not expected to do much actual secretary work, qualifications for this are not that important. Being able to read and write, make coffee and look/act professional in front of colleagues/clients is enough.

  • The person should be ok with often not having much to do during the working day.

If one the other hand you feel it's just morally wrong that some people get a nice well-paying job just for looking attractive you could go for one of Philip's solutions.

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    Disregarding morals, i think the biggest problem is that "Find a secretary of the desired gender" is illegal in the UK and exposes the firm to legal action. You could argue that only the OP and boss know the criteria, but others in the company notice the common theme of all the interview candidates. If one of those is a disgruntled employee or feels strongly about this issue, you could find yourself in hotwater. – matt freake Jan 17 at 13:24

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