I believe that hiring someone can be an act of social justice, if it is done in a way that protects against bias. This seems to be true especially in our diversity-challenged industry.
I want to do everything I can to fulfill this belief. As Google found out, even well-intentioned people can have unconscious bias. So I decided to learn as much as I could about what other people do to counteract bias while hiring, and to make sure I was doing all of those things.
My research led me to actions that teams and individuals can take to protect against bias while hiring, many of which I adapted from a great overview in The Manager’s Pocket Guide to Diversity Management. Practiced together, these actions give me confidence that my hiring decisions will reflect my desire to promote a just world. Everyone is involved in hiring decisions at some point in their lives, so regardless of your job title, if diversity is important to you I hope to give you the same confidence.
Look at yourself
The first step in protecting against bias while hiring is to look closely at yourself. One tool that can help with this is a self-assessment form called the Managing Diversity Profile. Don’t be thrown off by how manager-centric this sounds. An example of one metric is, “Delegates responsibility fully to those qualified to do the work regardless of race, gender, or other characteristics.” Items in the profile are actions that senior staff members and team leaders (not just managers) often do routinely.
A great book I’ve started reading that can help you better understand the experience of being stereotyped is Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele, which was on Bill Gates’s summer reading list in 2013. (At Safari, some of us will meet for a group discussion about Whistling Vivaldi in February of this year modeled on the discussion groups that Elon University held about that book.) The book suggests that even the threat of being stereotyped causes people deep anxiety. Keep this in mind during interviews.
If you are involved in interviewing, you should know that some information about candidates is legally protected to prevent discrimination. Safari has great titles on how to conduct an interview, such as The Truth About the Interview Process: The Essential Truths in 20 Minutes and Successful Interviewing and Recruitment, both of which touch on the topic of protected information.
Finally, are you exposed to the opinions of people in your field who are different from you? Are you reading about other cultural and gender experiences? As one female coworker wrote to me on this topic, “If you are not listening to anything that makes you uncomfortable, you are doing it wrong.”
Job descriptions and company material should reflect that your company values diversity
Studies have shown that when evaluating a company as a place to work, some people of color responded better when company materials included both pro-diversity language and depictions of people of color (see: Reading Smart Stuff Together and Whistling Vivaldi).
Make sure that job descriptions and your company web site project an openness to diversity, so that candidates feel like they will fit in before they even apply.
According to the Canadian non-profit HR Council, research shows that Canadian employers are biased toward “traditional Anglophone names.” In addition, a candidate’s name often tells you their gender, another possible trigger for unconscious bias. HR Council recommends that companies block out candidate names. Subsequent people evaluating the candidate would see only a unique number.
Use explicit selection criteria and measurement tools
Protecting against bias should mean that every candidate is evaluated fairly. One way to do this is to evaluate every candidate with an explicit set of criteria.
Meanwhile, the way you measure a candidate against the selection criteria should also be consistent. It might be something like a spreadsheet with the criteria listed as columns, the candidate as a row. Each interviewer should be identified with some kind of score for the criteria and an optional comment. The process should be transparent so that the company can review the scores that interviewees were given in subsequent evaluations of the fairness of hiring decisions.
Every candidate should pass through every step of the hiring process. It would not be fair if a candidate who took a shortcut were hired over a candidate who underwent longer evaluation. But it would be equally unfair if a candidate were given a shortcut and then subsequently rejected when, perhaps, the exempted portion of the interview might have given a better picture of the candidate’s abilities.
At least two evaluations for the same criteria
Whenever it is feasible, candidates should be given at least two evaluations for the same criteria. Imagine a technical evaluation for an engineering candidate. You can ensure at least two evaluations in different ways. If you only want to give the candidate one technical interview, such as a live coding exercise, then at least two engineers should evaluate the exercise. One person giving the candidate’s single technical evaluation could reject the candidate based on bias, with no safety net.
Another way to give two technical evaluations to every candidate is to offer them a take-home project to work on, and have multiple people evaluate the result. At the time of this writing, this is our practice at Safari, and we follow it with a live-coding exercise, so we have a rather large safety net.
I want to highlight what I feel is so great about take-home evaluations for candidates who might be targeted by commonly-held stereotypes (women, people of color, people with disabilities, and others). First, a take-home exercise eliminates a lot of in-the-moment stress of stereotype threat. For more about stereotype threat, see the book Whistling Vivaldi. With a take-home exercise, a candidate doesn’t have to perform under the burden of ordinary fear mixed with stereotype threat. Second, it yields a more complete artifact that the company can evaluate. For example, with a coding exercise, anyone involved in the hiring process can see the candidate’s unit tests, comments, documentation and code.
I mentioned this suggestion at the beginning of this post, with a couple of book suggestions that provide training on how to give an interview, but it’s worth mentioning again.
In most jobs I’ve worked, I have never received any training on how to give an effective interview. Isn’t that crazy? Everyone who is giving an interview should know how to give an interview. Interviewers will always have different levels of skill and experience at interviewing, but at the very least, they should know the legal issues involved, especially information about candidates that is protected by anti-discrimination laws.
Use diverse interviewers
Using a diverse group of interviewers seems to be the best way to fight bias while hiring, especially during interviews — even if this means that you open the interview process to people who are not “senior” employees or managers. Since people tend to hire people like them, a diverse group of interviewers should balance against skew toward a particular type of interviewer. And according to research about stereotype threat, diverse interviewers should help candidates perform better during interviews by potentially reducing candidate anxiety.
Interview and evaluate in teams
An interview given as a group, or an interview process composed of multiple interviews with individual interviewers, produces an aggregate view of the candidate. A hiring team that has to balance multiple perspectives about the candidate has a better chance at working against bias, especially if they draw those perspectives from a diverse set of interviewers.
Evaluate hiring decisions continually
Every hiring decision should produce artifacts. Data about applicants (possibly some of it anonymized), candidates and interviews should go somewhere for later review. Data about interviews should probably be composed of quantitative scores, even when these scores are also accompanied by qualitative information, and each score should be tied to the identity of the interviewer. Then your company should continually (perhaps every quarter) look at this data, and at who the company hired, to find possible patterns of bias.
In addition to reviewing numbers about past hiring decisions, company leaders need to listen to employees who are women, people of color, LGBTQ, have a disability or are from an otherwise underrepresented group at the company about their thoughts on the company’s hiring practices. Employees who experience being a member of these groups will have insight that is simply impossible for someone outside of the group to obtain. Google learned this the hard way when they built an iOS video app that was upside-down for a large number of their users (see the blog post “You don’t know what you don’t know: How our unconscious minds undermine the workplace” linked elsewhere in this post).
I believe that following the steps outlined in this post will give you more confidence that you are protecting against bias while hiring. There are many reasons why you would want to do so. See Leadership’s Role in Leveraging Workforce Diversity for examples about the benefits of attracting a diverse workforce.
However, the reason that I find most compelling is that by creating an environment in which people make truly fair hiring decisions, organizations take one big step toward a more just society. All people on Earth should have the chance to build a meaningful career, but we have to work to get there.