DOL Brings Discrimination Suit Against Palantir

One of the most abused headline genres in the tech world uses the phrase “Rocks Silicon Valley.” But today’s news can at least qualify as “Raises Eyebrows”: The United States Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program (OFCCP), part of the Dept. of Labor, has brought a complaint against the fabled Big Data startup Palantir, claiming the firm discriminates against Asian job applicants. Note that the suit will be heard by an Administrative Law judge, not in federal court.

There are a number of interesting aspects here, but first, a needed disclosure. OFCCP approached me about a year ago concerning the H-1B visa issue, and had me as a panelist at their recent conference for investigator training. This was not related to the lawsuit, which I just learned of yesterday, but I do wish to state that I have found the OFCCP leadership to be highly competent and professional, and to have a sincere concern about abuse of the visa. My talk was apparently quite well received.

One question sure to come to many readers minds is “Who qualifies as Asian?” In particular, do international students from China and India, say, who are studying at U.S. universities, count as “Asian”? Since the suit is based on an old federal Executive Order regarding affirmative action, is it limited to just U.S. citizens (USCs) and legal permanent residents (LPRs)? One might guess that it is the latter, since otherwise it would invalidate, for instance, employment-based green card statutes, which require employers to give hiring priority to the USCs and LPRs. But it is quite possible that the investigators simply relied on the applicants’ self-identification of race, including the non-USC/LPR applicants.

In terms of statistical methodology, the complaint seems to oversimplify the situation, with the claims taking the form of “x% [large number] of the applicants were Asian yet only y% [small number] of those hired were Asian.” Such an approach is almost always invalid, because it falsely assumes that all applicants are equally qualified. The complaint does say the investigation considered “equally qualified” applicants, but since they indicate that at least part of their data consists of analyzing applicants rejected at the re’sume’ level, it is doubtful that they were taking the most important criteria into account, as they tend to be the intangibles.

Word on the street is that it is extremely tough to get a job at Palantir, regardless of race. A couple of years ago, for instance, a student of mine (white) was interviewed for an internship and rejected, even though I would rate him as one of the top few undergraduates I’ve ever had over the years. Top employers in general, and especially Palantir,  are looking for deep insight, keen intuition, creativity, a noticeable verbal “presence”, quickness and so on.

Note too, by the way, that Palantir is an analysis company, not a software firm like Google and Facebook. They use mathematical analysis, statistical/machine learning methodology and so on. They accomplish these goals via software that either they or others (open source) write, but the software is only a means to an end. Just having good coding skills is far from sufficient.

Thus someone reading through applicant re’sume’s at Palantir will pick up intangibles that OFCCP investigators cannot discern. In addition, given Palantir’s government work, it may set a higher bar for the non-USC/LPR applicants, who are likely overwhelmingly Asian.

Of course, another possibility is that Palantir’s screening criteria, though benign in intent, have discriminatory effects that are unrelated to the jobs being filled. If Palantir does indeed use “verbal ‘presence'” as a criterion, for example, has the company given careful thought to just how important this trait is for effective job performance? Their assessment of the importance of this characteristic presumably is well-founded — the company’s business revolves around interaction with clients, after all — but if not, it would likely have a disproportionately adverse impact on Asian-American applicants.

In other words, this topic is very highly nuanced, and it is puzzling to see that the complaint seems to capture none of those subtleties. It may be that some will emerge as the case moves forward.


11 thoughts on “DOL Brings Discrimination Suit Against Palantir

  1. Perhaps the company does not need applicants with graduates degrees (too expensive) which tend to be disproportionately Asian.

    Perhaps the company, located in Palo Alto, does not want to hire too many people from the same local schools (Stanford, UC) which may be disproportionately Asian. I heard that colleges do not like to hire their own PhD graduates for teaching positions for fear of “inbreeding”. A similar line of thinking may be true for companies.


    • On the contrary, I would guess that they strongly prefer graduate degrees, and they located there in downtown Palo Alto specifically to be near Stanford.

      By the way, I was at a conference held at MIT last week, and was shocked to see a new multistory Google building right across the street. I was not there two years ago when I last visited the campus.


  2. Hmm. Interesting. By coincidence, I used to work for OFCCP. To actually bring a complaint means that Palantir refused to settle, probably because the statistics are bogus. We would aggregate the race and applicant data in whatever way would give a statistically significant result. For example, comparing one race to another, or comparing one race to all other races.

    My guess, knowing nothing about the specifics, is that the majority of Palantir’s applicants are Asian, perhaps overwhelmingly so, to the point where Palantir would be expected, statistically, to only hire Asians.


  3. One of Palantir’s largest customers (who shall remain nameless) specifically requested that they only put “Natural-Born American Citizens” on certain projects. The implication is that such projects represent a substantial fraction of the total income of the corporation.

    While a blanket prohibition against naturalized citizens or Green-Card holders is strictly illegal, the agency in question does not always obey the law. I am not willing to condemn Palantir in this matter.

    Full disclosure: I applied to Palantir approximately 10 years ago, and they did not hire me. It was probably due to my age. (I am a natural-born US citizen.)


    • “So the DOL will bring a suit against Palantir for discriminating against Asians, but nothing against those discriminating against older Americans?”

      The OFCCP does NOT handle age discrimination cases.

      “OFCCP enforces Executive Order 11246, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974. As amended, these three laws make it illegal for contractors and subcontractors doing business with the federal government to discriminate in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability or status as a protected veteran.”


  4. Having worked extensively in Asia for many years, don’t fall into a trap of “quiet Asians” that you experience in US education. I’ve heard more screaming, yelling and swearing in Asia than other parts of the world. Especially Korea, and a good portion of SE Asia, albeit not uniformly true across all sub-cultures.

    In Taipei there are several customers who greet me and I do the same in return as “Miserable *$#&%#!”
    If you like cagefighting (I don’t) Taiwan business culture is one heck of a replacement for it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s