I have noticed colleagues, when reviewing applicant resumes together, sometimes speculate on the national origin and gender of the applicant (usually based on their name). This seems to be harmless curiosity and does not seem to be affecting hiring decisions, but I'm wondering if this is inappropriate enough to mention something. Is it?
Legally? Don't know, but off the record and probably
fine at risk per JeffO's answer.
Ethically? Definitely inappropriate. You have it backwards. Discrimination is automatic and requires conscious correction. So when you say:
does not seem to be affecting hiring decisions
my reaction is, "When did they do something specific to make you think that?" Fortunately this is a good learning opportunity. Bringing the subject up (assuming you have the tact and/or sway to do so, tread carefully) is a good way to say, "I know this looks trivial, but we need to be extremely diligent in the hiring process." Feel free to point to numerous studies and anecdotes on the topic.
This 'How to Fight Race and Gender Bias in Science' Editorial in the Oct 2014 issue of Scientic American sums ups the issue quite nicely.
The North American perspective would be that nationality/ethnicity is completely out of bounds in the hiring process and this would be a very touchy subject. If this is N America I would strongly recommend bringing it up. The appearance of bias is just as bad as actual bias.
In many other places (eg S Korea) this would be normal and not a big issue at all.
It only takes one person who doesn't get hired who happens to have a different ethnicity to turn this into a legal problem. A former or current employee who is aware of these comments could become a whistle-blower if they have a grievance with the company, want to stand up for the person who didn't get hired or they just think it is wrong.
It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.
In real-world terms, it seems to me that it would depend on what people are doing about it. It might very well be harmless curiosity. If someone sees an unfamiliar name, there's nothing startling about the idea that they might wonder, "Hmm, Vietnhi, is that a boy's name or a girl's name?" My ancestors are from Norway, and I've very often had people ask me if my name is Norwegian, Swedish, or something else. I've never supposed that they wanted to know so that they could decide whether or not to discriminate against me. I always figured it was just idle curiosity or making conversation.
If people at the company are speculating about someone's national origin based on their name, and when the consensus is that the name is French they throw the resume out but every other nationality they keep, then yes, there's a problem.
I suppose that if someone brought a discrimination lawsuit, the fact that people talked about their nationality could be used as evidence in court. Sad that people who have no intent to discriminate have to live in fear that an innocent desire to learn a little about other cultures could be taken wrong, but that's life in modern America, I guess.