Evaluating and Interviewing

15 minutes, 10 links


Updated August 24, 2022
Technical Recruiting and Hiring

You’re reading an excerpt of The Holloway Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring, a book by Osman (Ozzie) Osman and over 45 other contributors. It is the most authoritative resource on growing software engineering teams effectively, written by and for hiring managers, recruiters, interviewers, and candidates. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, over 800 links and references, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

Evaluating other people based on the scant data we gather from a few hours of interviewing is a lofty challenge. Recruiting with diversity in mind can help you get better signal from the noise—from interpreting a nontraditional career path, to being able to take into account a candidate’s obstacles that are unfamiliar to you—and account for the conscious and unconscious biases of the interviewers. There are a few strategies that we describe here, but cover in more detail in Part V.

Build a Structured Interview Process

Structured interviewing has several benefits. By emphasizing the training of interviewers and the implementation of rubrics and feedback forms, structured interviewing allows for methodical evaluation for the skills required for the job. These strategies go a long way in minimizing bias and evaluative confusion in the hiring process.

  • Calibrate interviewers. A structured interview process involves calibrating interviewers so they all come into the process with the same baseline knowledge and expectations. This is hugely important for mitigating bias in the interview process. It is important to spark a dialogue with your team about bias so they feel welcome to ask questions and bring up concerns. Helpful steps in that discussion include:

    • Acknowledging a candidate’s identity to prime interviewers to listen for specific types of responses and feedback that might be associated with stereotypes for a particular demographic. When reviewing interviewer feedback, interviewers should be on the lookout for how bias might show up in notes and discussions.

    • Reminding interviewers of common stereotypes and biases before they interview. For example, someone interviewing a woman may say something like, “they’re too pushy” or “she was abrasive.”* These are signs of bias that you can counteract.

  • Evaluate fairly. URGs generally get vague feedback or feedback that is personal rather than results based. A structured interview process can minimize bias by ensuring each interview question is evaluated in the same way, and that all interviewers are trained in recognizing biased language.

Sometimes, hiring managers perceive that it is more “risky” to advocate for underrepresented candidates. This bias, whether unconscious or conscious, has little to do with whether the candidate is actually qualified. Rubrics and structured feedback make it a lot easier for managers and other advocates to feel confident bringing an underrepresented candidate to the table.

Interviewers look at the resume as they walk into the room. Instead, train them to read the job description.Nicole Sanchez, D&I strategy consultant*

Further Reading on Structured Interviewing

Diverse Interview Panels

controversy While having URG employees sitting on interview panels may increase the chance of getting more URG candidates through the pipeline, this can come at a cost. Consider the potential unintended consequences on interviewers from underrepresented backgrounds. Because URG employees are, by definition, underrepresented at companies, implementing a policy where URGs are required on interview panels results in a disproportionate burden on these employees. This is not only tiring; it constitutes an additional tax borne by URGs, as employees generally are required to serve as interviewers in addition to their normal job responsibilities, without extra compensation.

caution Some companies deliberately staff their interview panels with URGs or default to having URGs conduct behavioral interviews to suss out noninclusive or marginalizing behaviors from potentially problematic candidates. This means companies deliberately expose URG employees to possible harmful behavior.

From the candidate perspective, candidates who interview with employees from underrepresented groups may walk away with certain assumptions about the diversity of the rest of the company, not realizing that their panel was not representative of the company or team as a whole. If an employee were to join the company and ends up feeling fooled, it doesn’t bode well for performance and retention. It is better to be honest about your company’s makeup—and deliberate about sharing details of your D&I efforts—rather than to “trick” URGs into joining.

Interviewing for Inclusion

Ultimately, I had to recognize that my job here wasn’t to save people. As a person who is passionate about learning and developing talent, I understood that where these candidates ended up next could mean the difference between them learning how to become allies or perpetuating the status quo. I knew that if they joined our organization, I could provide some of that guidance, but I had to ask myself whether our organization could underwrite more inclusion debt; and if we did, who would most likely be servicing it. The answers were that we could not, and of course the [URGs] in my organization would be the ones having to bear the bulk of the burden, if we tried. For those reasons, we had to favor folks who had already proven themselves as strong advocates for inclusion.Jason Wong, leadership coach*

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Can you interview for inclusion? That is, is there a way to evaluate how inclusive an individual candidate is, or to assess their feelings about diversity and inclusion?

controversy Interviewing explicitly for inclusion is thorny at best. The goal of doing so would be to ensure that no one joins your team who won’t be on board with the company’s D&I efforts, or to avoid hiring someone who would actively try to work against those efforts. You don’t want to bring people onto the team who are going to be an undue burden on your URGs; but attempting to glean a candidate’s feelings or current skills when it comes to D&I is fraught.

Candidates are often caught off guard by questions about inclusion, which can cause interviewers to feel like they are on moral high ground, preventing them from being able to assess the candidate accurately or fairly. When questioned about inclusion, some candidates will just say what they think the interviewer wants to hear.

story “In my experience, candidates trying to show how woke they are often end up being the most difficult to work with, whereas people who honestly admit to not being comfortable and knowledgeable enough on D&I can be the most open-minded.” —Jennifer Kim, startup advisor and inclusion advocate

story “There will always be people willing to say whatever it takes to get the job, whether it’s trying to display how woke they are or trying to get you to believe they are passionate about your product or culture. A significant amount of interviewing is a game of impression management.” —Jason Wong, leadership coach

caution Avoid judging a candidate based on how much they already know about D&I. Unless a candidate has been trained in D&I at another company or has taken it upon themselves to learn all the ever-changing lingo and best practices, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to give a satisfying answer to an interviewer who’s looking for these signals. It can be particularly unfair when interviewing international candidates who may have not had the opportunity to learn the complicated jargon of D&I or who are coming to the table with different cultural expectations and practices.

Rather than looking for whether a candidate can tell you the definition of “intersectionality,” you can do two things to help bring values-aligned people to your team:

  1. Tell them a lot about your company’s values.

story “When you try to actively test for this specific thing, you could introduce more bias, and you would exclude more than you would actually want to. I still think you can test for that, but not in a super straightforward manner. Don’t test for ‘does this person have inclusive, diversity-oriented views?’ Rather, you want to see how open to other points of view people are—do they treat other people like humans? Or do they go for this whole ‘meritocracy’ thinking? One non-obvious question you can ask to get there is, ‘How have you convinced someone of something they didn’t agree with at first?’ Alternatively, ‘How have you been convinced by someone else?’ Did they do it respectfully, do they have respect for the other person or do they demean others? When discussing these kinds of behaviors, they don’t have to explicitly say anything about diversity and inclusion out loud, but they are telling you how they treat other people. Even if they don’t know the lingo or even the strategies for building diverse teams and so on, they probably have a deeply ingrained thing—do I treat people like people or do I make distinctions based on arbitrary qualities or appearances?” —Benjamin Reitzammer, freelance CTO

One of the goals of asking behavioral questions is to communicate your company’s values to candidates. If you say to a candidate, “Tell me about a time when you helped someone who was being excluded,” they’re going to have a pretty good sense that inclusiveness is important to you. (It’s also helpful to look for other opportunities in your interview process to communicate your company’s values.) If the candidate does not share those values, they might end up deciding to work somewhere else. This indicates that it wasn’t a good candidate-company fit.

Chelsea Troy provides great questions and a rubric for evaluating inclusive behaviors.

story “It’s impossible to build a foolproof process to weed out the people you wouldn’t want on your team, because there are so many kinds of things you’d have to test against or be able to read in the right way—jerks can come in different flavors: manipulative, aggressive, charming, sociopathic, et cetera. The best strategy is preventative. Instead of trying to ID or weed out bad apples in the interview process, I think it’s more effective to make your workplace/culture/external brand one where certain people wouldn’t want to work! For example, making very clear signals and stances around harassment will make your company less attractive to abusers.” —Jennifer Kim, startup advisor and inclusion advocate

contribute The research on whether interviewing for inclusion can be done effectively, and how, is happening in real time. We encourage anyone who has experience interviewing for inclusion—successfully or unsuccessfully—to reach out with their stories.

Let Candidates Interview You

It’s easy to get caught up in the need to evaluate candidates while managing a high-volume pipeline. But a crucial part of the hiring process is the candidate experience; everything from your value proposition and pitch to the interview experience and compensation package will sell the candidates on the role, team, and company. They need to choose you, and in this hiring market, they are likely to have multiple offers on the table.

A big part of this is giving candidates the opportunity—even encouraging them—to interview you about the company, the role, the team, and anything else. This is especially important for URGs.

important Different groups evaluate opportunities differently. Asking a lot of questions—even when they seem “picky” or “difficult”—isn’t necessarily an indicator of that candidate being a bad potential employee. The history and current state of diversity and inclusion in tech means that a lot of talented people have been burned for years; URGs are more likely to have low trust in employers. They usually need to evaluate companies at a higher standard because past environments have failed them. This is true of all kinds of questions, too, certainly not just questions about your company’s D&I efforts or the makeup of the team.

story “When it comes to compensation, URGs are often judged in interviews or salary negotiations as being ‘too focused on money.’ Wanting to be compensated fairly is not a bad thing. As an interviewer, make sure that you are not judging URGs for taking their own compensation considerations seriously.” —Ryn Daniels, Senior Software Engineer, HashiCorp

What talented people want at the end of the day is a great working environment so they can do their best work. Don’t punish people, especially URGs, for asking a lot of questions. They are acting rationally.

Candidates from underrepresented backgrounds are more likely to have been burned by previous companies due to bias, harassment, and toxicity. They have to ask a lot of questions to determine whether a startup will be a safe, supportive environment or yet another dumpster fire.Jennifer Kim, startup advisor and inclusion advocate*

It can definitely be difficult to be interviewed by a candidate when you’re not 100% confident in your answers. One example of a common question you can expect from women candidates might be: “What is the percentage of women and nonbinary people on the existing team?” Assuming you’re not proud of the percentage, don’t go on the defensive. Be honest about it, but also use the opportunity to open up a conversation. From there, you can show empathy and honestly discuss that while your numbers aren’t ideal today, the team is working to improve; and you can explain what approaches the team is trying.

This kind of empathy is essential to close all kinds of candidates. In this market, engineers are going to be considering choosing you from among a number of options. Being empathetic, even anticipatory, of their concerns; curious about their questions and answers; and willing to dig deep into what really matters to a candidate will give you a much better chance at bringing the best people on board.

Compensate Fairly

Compensation disparity between URGs and their white male colleagues is a particularly prevalent issue.**

Figure: Pay Disparities

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