“We don’t want to lower the hiring bar.”

6 minutes, 6 links


Updated August 24, 2022
Technical Recruiting and Hiring

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When you hear people say this or “I know I need more diversity on my team, but I’m also supposed to hire the best person,” it tells you that either they believe the hiring process would elevate unqualified candidates just because they’re underrepresented, or they believe diversity efforts in general are equated with lower quality—or both.

The Basics

While the intention here may be one of concern for the quality of your organization, this statement implies an underlying belief that the average performance of minorities across gender and race is less than the overall mean—that you must choose between having a high performing engineering organization and opening your doors to URGs. This belief reflects conscious or unconscious biases: the phrase reflects the thinking that “underrepresented” means “not as competent.”

Laura Weidman Powers picks apart this phrase word by word in a post we highly recommend, where she points out “the implication in that statement [is] that you have to defend yourself against others who want you to lower the bar.” No one, least of all hiring managers, wants a process that’s going to lead to a poor candidate-company fit. D&I efforts combat lazy hiring based on pattern-matching and kinship, which favor a limited set of experiences. D&I raises the bar.

We found that the engineers who are excited about the fact that we are trying to recruit women and that we have that as a value—men or women—are the people we actually want to be hiring. The men who come into our organization who are excited about the fact that we have diversity as a goal are generally the people who are better at listening, they’re better at group learning, they’re better at collaboration, they’re better at communication. They’re particularly the people you want to be your engineering managers and your technical leads.Kellan Elliott-McCrea, Dropbox*

If a team member says something like, “We don’t want to lower the hiring bar,” here’s one way to respond: “Diversity is an indicator of great hiring taking place. If our team is homogenous, it means we’re over-relying on shallow signals like pedigrees. We don’t want our hiring process to favor candidates that confirm our existing biases. Recruiting from more diverse pools of talent forces us as a company to make improvements at all stages of the process, from attracting candidates, to evaluations, to closing. It will help us reduce problematic biases and develop a muscle around making thoughtful hiring decisions.”

If we juxtapose all the data we now have about the business benefits of diversity next to the demographic composition of our engineering teams, the real question we need to grapple with is whether or not we ever had a clue about what an effective engineering organization was.Jason Wong, leadership coach

Going Deeper

caution Concerns about lowering the hiring bar might come up when a hiring manager or leader institutes hiring mandates, whereby a certain number of new hires must be from underrepresented groups to reach goals set by the company or team. Mandates can impact a team’s sense of choice and fairness, but it’s not always so simple. If your organization is falling short of its diversity hiring goals, this approach involves some sort of hard stance on who will get the spotlight in the next hiring round. Mandates might seem like the only means available at the moment, but being successful in building a diverse workforce requires a holistic approach. It can be useful to ask yourself:

Mandates may solve your immediate goals for the next few hires, but can hurt those new employees, who may be treated as a token by their peers and potentially exposed to an unwelcoming environment once they’re through the door. Ultimately, they are unlikely to stay. True success is understanding and addressing the conditions creating passivity or resistance on this issue among your employees and within yourself.

That said, it’s worth noting that mandates correlate with effective change in some cases. In 2002, France enacted parity laws which mandated that each party had to field an equal number of men and women.* This led to the National Assembly going from 10.9% women to 39%. Title IX in the United States is another great example. Prior to 1974, fewer than 300,000 women participated in high school sports. Today, there are over 3.1 million.* While we can’t ignore these leaps in progress, these directives were not complete solutions. Unless you’re looking to create an organization that’s an ever-revolving door for underrepresented people, you will need to do the hard work of changing your workplace norms in order to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce.

“We believe people should be hired on their merits.”

Similar phrases include, “Our hiring process is fair” and “We’re a meritocracy.”

The Basics

While talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not. Many URGs face barriers that people from majority groups do not. They don’t receive as many referrals, they get passed over for promotions, and they get paid less, to name just a few. They often have to work twice as hard or more to get the same level of recognition, while facing continued barriers like harassment and discrimination. The merit myth is a particularly difficult one to address, because you don’t want to make anyone feel that they don’t deserve what they’ve worked for, as you work to help more privileged people recognize the barriers URGs face. But this myth can be so harmful to individuals and teams that it’s critical to take steps to address it.

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