Diversity and Inclusion in Tech, Part 2: Improving the Hiring Process
Concrete strategies to improve diversity and inclusion in software engineering hiring today.
Jennifer Kim (Inclusion at Work)
Jason Wong (JWong Works)
▪︎ an hour read time
Two experts who have shaped diversity and inclusion strategy at top companies created this deep dive to help technical teams discuss and practice D&I in their hiring: lead author Jennifer Kim is a startup advisor, former Head of People at Lever, and founder of Inclusion At Work, a diversity and inclusion resource; contributing author Jason Wong is a coach and fractional VP of Engineering, formerly a Senior Director at Etsy. Part 1 of their two-part series covers foundational knowledge and how to address common myths and pitfalls related to D&I in tech. Part 2, this section, covers specific strategies to improve D&I in your hiring process today. Anyone who has questions about D&I will benefit from this series; hiring managers and others involved in hiring technical roles will find it particularly helpful. The series is excerpted from the Holloway Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring, a comprehensive resource assembling the work of over 40 contributors and insights from dozens of interviews with experts.
Jennifer Kim compares underrepresented talent to the canaries in the coalmine— whatever biases exist in your hiring process, certain groups will feel them before others do. But just because they’re the first to notice (and potentially the first to be harmed), doesn’t mean they’ll be the last. Hiring with diversity in mind isn’t just about whom you let in at the top of the funnel—there are many pitfalls throughout the hiring process that can create an unfair or hostile environment. There are also many opportunities in that process for improving diversity and inclusion at your company, for current and future employees. There are a number of straightforward strategies and tactics you can employ as a hiring manager to make sure your team is hiring the best people out there and creating the kind of environment that will make them want to stay.
An important part of hiring with diversity and inclusion in mind is planning ahead. Many companies have an unstructured default where lack of foresight routinely catches them scrambling to fill one-off roles, and recruiting remains a stop-and-go effort.
When faced with constant firefighting, hiring becomes about “Who is available now? Who can we hire easily and quickly?” This is not a favorable environment for an underrepresented candidate. And while there’s nothing wrong with scrambling once in a while to fill an unforeseen business-critical opening, if this is your group’s default strategy, you’ll end up with a team built of those who were easiest for you to hire—those you already know, who were available. To raise the hiring bar, you’ll need to plan your hiring processes in advance. This section will help you do so with a focus on making that process more effective, and more inclusive for everyone.
When Google released its diversity data in 2014, it led to a flurry of more big tech companies releasing theirs and promising to do better with bold targets—like reaching certain demographic percentages. Companies largely missed these goals,* because it is incredibly difficult to change the demographics of organizations that are already in the many thousands.* While the data helped to raise awareness, releasing it wasn’t a solution.* Companies that initially championed diversity reports have since delayed releasing these reports on schedule, or stopped altogether.**
caution Looking only at how many URGs are hired can lead to misaligned incentives, where recruiters and teams think they need to beef up their numbers just to look good. Facebook, for example, instituted a policy by which recruiters were given “diversity points” when they brought in “someone who was a woman, or who was not white or Asian.”* This initiative failed, in large part because those charged with making hiring decisions felt that the company had done enough by offloading responsibilities to recruiters and asking them to broaden the pipeline. Even if Facebook had hired a significant number of underrepresented engineers, having “good” diversity numbers does not mean those numbers will last, particularly if there are no efforts at improving inclusion at the company.
story “In the vast majority of cases, it is incredibly obvious to candidates when a recruiter or hiring manager is targeting them for whatever group they think they’re part of. When you get some random person reaching out with a position that seems like a poor fit, it’s a waste of time, and being known for doing that sort of thing is going to hurt the reputation of that company even further.” —Ryn Daniels, HashiCorp
There is certainly disagreement among experts on whether specific number-driven goals* are the right approach to D&I. But it’s also true that for a business initiative to be taken seriously, goals of some kind need to be set. What gets measured gets managed.
Companies may make ambitious, realistic goals more achievable by moving away from a single focus on demographic stats, and instead doing more to improve the overall hiring process. Set process goals, not outcome goals, and focus on what you can control.
Investment in an inclusive hiring process rather than a dedication to meeting specific demographic goals will better serve your team and future employees, for a number of reasons. First, as we discuss in Part I: Foundations, Myths, and Pitfalls, hiring a diverse workforce is not the whole deal—an inclusive work environment must be fostered to help those individuals thrive. Second, if you are leading a reasonably sized team—say, an organization of 50+ engineers—significant demographic shifts may take something on the order of years rather months, and a focus on day-to-day processes will help ensure that your team doesn’t get burnt out trying to reach only far-off goals. Finally, building a great candidate experience that’s sensitive to the needs of underrepresented groups will be the biggest signal of a valuable employee experience, and will make the team that much more attractive across the board.
Making adjustments to your hiring process with a D&I lens will not only mitigate biases and allow underrepresented candidates to shine, but will make the hiring process better for all. So look at the process recommendations we include here and set goals to improve where you can. Don’t let big goals distract you from the human beings in front of you today.
Remember the big picture
While focusing on number-driven goals may not be the best approach, it is important to remember why you’re making these changes, and to make sure your team does too. Because implementing inclusive hiring practices is similar to implementing complex software systems—you can ensure that every software component is functioning as intended and still end up with a nonfunctional system. In our engineering world, this is a use case for integration tests.
When implementing changes to your recruiting and hiring process, it’s easy to get too focused on the functioning of each step and lose sight of the larger intent of your changes. If making a particular change to your process ends up taking you further from your goals, lean toward system function over component function. At the end of the day, success is measured in how people feel about coming in again tomorrow.
Write better job descriptions
At many companies, writing the job description is a perfunctory task, something to just get through so we can hire someone right now. But taking a thoughtful approach and investing in a good process for writing job descriptions with a D&I lens can have a significant positive effect on the rest of your hiring process. How you advertise your jobs has a proven impact on who applies.
The patterns that show up across your company’s jobs show what you truly value.Kieran Snyder, Textio*
Improving the job description format
Because every hiring manager tends to write job descriptions differently, setting some standards and guidelines can help. One guideline might be to limit bullet points to just five, each no longer than an old-school tweet (140 characters). This is to encourage hiring managers to focus on what’s essential and avoid prescribing or overdetermining potential candidate profiles too much, as that’s where biases can creep in. There are a few essential guidelines for writing inclusive JDs:
Describe outcomes. Describe the job that needs to be done or the problem that needs to be solved. Outcomes will get a candidate who’s a good fit excited about the job; a job description that lists only requirements just describes what you think a candidate should look like.
Spell out the problem that exists and do so in a way that will get the right person really excited about that job. Unhelpful job descriptions often try to appeal to the broadest applicant pool possible, which creates a high volume of applicants, most of whom can’t tell if the role is right for them; and this in turn means that none of them may be the right person for the role. Instead, the best job descriptions are specific about problems the person in the role will be expected to solve. This lets the right person see themselves in the role.
Separate out and prioritize the requirements checklist into what’s really needed vs. what the person might learn more about on the job. Rattling off a long list of requirements often inadvertently results in describing a candidate who doesn’t exist or whom the company could not realistically recruit. By listing what’s actually the core function of the job versus what can be taught, like certain tools or languages, you open the candidate pool to more nontraditional talent who may be self-taught or otherwise lack prior exposure to specific skill sets, but who have the potential to learn quickly.
Improving job description language
importantThe language you use matters. Textio compared the language used by ten top tech companies in their job descriptions, strikingly documenting one source of tech’s homogeneity problem. Describing your teams and company using the same typical language other companies use signals to candidates that your company is no different. In modeling yourself after your favorite Valley tech company, you may not realize that that company represents the exact thing that certain groups are eager to escape.
In 2015, Buffer realized their job postings were only getting 2% female applicants. They figured out this was due in part to one word they kept using: hacker. Buffer posted about what happened when they used different language in their job descriptions, and how that changed who applied. Nvidia saw 2.5 times more applicants from female developers after they removed “weird” language from their job titles (as described in a very helpful post by FastCompany)—titles like “guru,” “ninja,” “rockstar,” or “genius,” to which older candidates, women, and other underrepresented people are unlikely to respond, let alone search for.
Controlled academic studies and a ZipRecruiter analysis of millions of ads on its platform have shown the same effects of gendered and exclusionary language in job descriptions. Such language keeps candidates from applying or even seeing the job in the first place.
A great tool for discovering gendered and exclusionary language in job descriptions is Textio.
Improve your value proposition
Numerous studies have shown that there’s a “confidence gap” across genders that leads to unequal rates of access to opportunities. In your job description, it’s important to focus on selling, not gate-keeping. Why should these candidates join your company?
Mission and vision
What are your mission and vision for the future? What impact will this role have in the company, and what impact will the company have on the world? If you work at a small company that hasn’t yet developed its value proposition or branding, visit Appendix A and our section on crafting company narratives in the Holloway Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring.
Beyond the company’s mission and vision, other ways to add to your value proposition are by honing your benefits and perks.
caution Many companies proudly list their offerings without realizing that those very offerings are biased toward certain groups. A single, childless 23-year-old male candidate has different priorities than an experienced candidate with parent and elder caretaking duties. The latter is less likely to get excited about “weekly happy hours, beers on tap, and ping-pong tournaments,” and much more likely to be drawn to clear parental leave policies, 401k matching, and flexible work schedules.
I’ve seen companies whose job descriptions and careers pages mention hot-tub hangouts and regular alcohol-centered team activities be confused about why they struggle attracting a qualified, diverse pool of applicants.Jennifer Kim
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to benefits packages, so it’ll take time and experimenting to figure out what works for you. It helps to keep in mind that the focus of the company, team, or role will make certain benefits more attractive to relevant candidates (for example, privacy protection may be a bigger concern for certain security roles.) Does your company offer childcare assistance, flexible hours, ability to work remotely, or student loan assistance? Have you considered covering physical safety costs in the case of harassment, including security details, anti-doxxing measures, or funding for emergency temporary relocation? Does your medical insurance policy include pregnancy and transgender health benefits? A candidate-focused job description comes from recruiting with D&I in mind.
Think about the visuals
What kind of information does your jobs page communicate about the team and environment? Who is featured in the photos and what are they doing? What would candidates from underrepresented groups say about what they see?
It is critical to directly ask a variety of people if they are willing to give you feedback, instead of assuming what you think their perception will be. You might find that the casual language and photos that you thought were conveying a “relaxed, chill” vibe might be a signal for “unprofessionalism” to an engineer who was burned at her previous startup. A showcase of photos from your company’s exotic retreat, the whole engineering team in their bathing suits, can be a big turnoff to URGs; this is the last thing some will be looking for.
This doesn’t mean URGs are wet blankets on your cozy team bonding; it means you need to balance what you view as a “fun” workplace environment with a value proposition that reaches people with broader lives and concerns, such as family, health, personal safety, and so on. This is an exercise in considering how you might be limiting your talent pool because of the ways in which you present (and sometimes misrepresent!) your company’s values.
Present existing D&I efforts with honesty
Checking the About page on a company’s website is an important part of the job search process for many candidates from underrepresented groups. While all candidates want to learn about the people they’ll be working with, URGs tend to pay special attention to existing diversity, to figure out whether that particular environment is one where they could be set up for success, both as a candidate and as a potential employee.
important The number-one most effective way to attract underrepresented talent is to have a proven, demonstrated record of URGs thriving at your company. That not only means effective hiring, but also retaining and promoting people from underrepresented backgrounds into leadership positions. Your company’s reputation as an inclusive space amongst URG engineering networks will precede you. While changing jobs is always risky, URGs tend to be especially conservative when it comes to risk tolerance. Pay inequity, career stagnation, harassment, and assault are just a handful of the additional concerns that URGs have to weigh when deciding on a new career opportunity. If your candidates can see that others like them have been successful at your company, they can put a lot of those concerns to rest. On the flip side, lack of these indicators makes it too easy for candidates to screen you out and move on to another company. Increasingly, more candidates from all backgrounds are operating this way.
story “When people interview with me, they see a signal that they can bring themselves to work. I can be a living, breathing ‘Black people are welcome here’ sign.” —Bukky Adebayo, Product Manager*
Chances are, your organization does not currently have the halo effects of an excellent record and reputation when it comes to diversity—few companies do. Being honest about your D&I efforts likely requires changing your recruiting pitch.
danger Photographing the one Black employee and two women on the team and plastering their faces around your site is not a good idea. You don’t want to “fake it.” Never lie to candidates—it won’t end well. And do not lie to your employees either. Get consent from anyone whose photo or bio you want to use in marketing material, and tell them what you will be using it for. Give them the option to opt out without professional consequences (don’t tell them they’re “not a team player”). In addition to privacy and safety concerns, individuals may not want to be the face of D&I at your company, especially if the company is still struggling.
But if you truly are making an effort in diversity, what can you show, if the numbers aren’t there yet? Embrace this opportunity to engage in real talk with candidates. Acknowledge deficiencies and your growing awareness, and explain the journey behind the learning process. More and more employees are expecting this level of honesty from their leaders.
Questions to reflect on:
How do the team or company leaders currently talk about D&I?
Is D&I being discussed as an important part of overall business strategy, beyond hiring numbers?
What concrete steps has the team taken or will take to expand understanding of the issues that affect underrepresented talent in tech?
What are some recent actions you or your team have taken to create a more fair and equitable organization?
important You don’t need to have a perfect answer. In fact, you may be the only company a candidate is talking to that has anything like a thoughtful response to their questions or concerns about D&I. They will likely find your willingness to talk refreshing. Just be honest. You’ll find that candidates are much more open to the truth that you’re working on it, than to a charade that you’ve somehow mastered D&I—they will definitely see through that.
Diversify your candidate pool
In technical hiring, especially at startups, this is a common practice: “I just reached out to all the guys I know and hired who was available.” In fact, your most effective recruiting channel is probably internal referrals—even for later-stage companies—and referrals typically share the demographic characteristics of your existing team. Expanding the pool and being intentional about who you are inviting to interview gives a chance to those who may otherwise have been overlooked. Luckily, there are many ways to diversify your initial candidate pool and expand your pool of qualified candidates.
If your organization already has a university recruiting program, consider expanding your efforts to include schools with more diverse populations than Stanford, MIT, and Harvard, whether that’s HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), women’s colleges, or state universities and community colleges. You can choose to recruit from colleges where the student populations are closer to the audience for your product. You can look at the schools that belong to BRAID or other schools that have made effective strides in diversifying their engineering programs.
Partnering with bootcamps that have a commitment to diversity is another great way to source candidates. Recurse Center, C4Q, and Fullstack Academy are just a few examples. Online programs like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) also graduate more diverse classes of engineers than do traditional four-year schools.
One of the big pushes of the past five years of D&I efforts in tech has been the formation of self-identifying talent pools and affinity groups from which companies can hire—Code2040, Hire Tech Ladies, Lesbians Who Tech, to name some. Name any given demographic, and there is a high chance you can find an organization looking to connect you to that group. But these groups are not all the same. It’s wise not to put too much faith in an external organization, especially if you are expecting—and they are promising—an easy solution to such a complex issue.
How you screen candidates at the top of the funnel presents one of the biggest opportunities to improve your hiring process.
Decades of studies with resumes have shown that just changing the name on a resume–from traditionally white-sounding names to traditionally Black-sounding names—results in fewer callbacks, even though the qualifications are exactly the same. According to a two-year academic study from 2016, changing Black-sounding names to white-sounding names and otherwise “whitening” resumes resulted in over twice the number of callbacks to Black applicants, while whitening the resumes of Asian applicants resulted in about twice the number of callbacks.*
controversy Taking a cue from the results of blind auditions in the music world, many organizations have implemented identity scrubbing from their applications (also known as blind reviews), with promising results. The practice of removing names from resumes and coding submissions can have many positive effects. However, with identity removed from the equation, hiring teams default to evaluating based on the majority identity.
Rather than erasing identity, consider acknowledging the social barriers your candidates have had to overcome.*
Consider two runners, one who races against a headwind, while the other runs in calm weather. They both average the same mile time, though the first is actively pushing against battering winds. Who’s better?Gregory Walton, Stanford professor*
Considering social barriers means you may need to reexamine your stance on job hopping, alma maters, nontraditional educations or paths to tech, contributions to open source, GitHub activity, and awarding points for side hustles and passion projects. For many URGs, the lack (or presence) of these things in their resumes are due to the systemic challenges they face in their day-to-day lives.
“This is lowering the bar!” you might say. But evidence indicates that things traditionally lauded in resumes, like educational pedigree, have no bearing on job performance. Additionally, it’s all too common for companies to test URGs in ways that other candidates are not. Interview panels and hiring teams are typically unwilling to take systemic challenge into account when it comes to URG candidates—interviewers often require that they have 110% of qualifications to make it through.
The truth is, however, that hiring teams compromise in hiring all the time anyway. Think about your last desperate hire and all the rules you relaxed when you were trying to find that one available person with that specific skill set that was vital to company success: when you hired that SQL expert, did you compromise on some of the other technical skills you’d otherwise require? When you hired that Android engineer, did you compromise on your “everyone is a fullstack developer” credo? When you hired the security expert, did you compromise on how well you might get along with them?
URGs add unique value, and allowances may be made accordingly, especially when it comes to requirements that are far more difficult for URGs to achieve because of systemic racism, like graduating with a four-year degree from a top school; or due to systemic sexism, like having experience in management at a top company. Given that such requirements do not predict job performance, should they be requirements anyhow? Are there things you consider requirements that are actually better learned on the job? This is not about lowering the bar —it’s about expanding your understanding of what makes a candidate a good fit and raising the bar accordingly.
Hire in cohorts
Careful planning may allow you to hire in cohorts* or batches (“we’re expecting four Data Engineer openings next quarter”). Many talented professionals from nontraditional backgrounds have stories of being given a chance that they feel they would not have otherwise received, had it not been for the opportunities provided by batch-hiring.
The Rooney Rule
One more concrete tactic you can try is the Rooney Rule. It’s an approach borrowed from the NFL, an organization that has faced criticism for lack of diversity in its coaching and senior staff (in marked contrast to its players). There’s some variety in implementation, but the rule requires at least one underrepresented person to be interviewed before a hire can be made.
caution This approach has other effects that may not be immediately obvious: underrepresented candidates might feel like they’re just being asked to interview to check off a box and that you are wasting their time. Untrained interviewers and inexperienced hiring managers may see it as a burden and may even display hostility toward the candidates (“Oh, you’re not a real candidate, I’m being forced to talk to you.”), causing more harm to URGs, rather than the opposite. Therefore, how the Rooney Rule is designed and communicated matters a lot.
important Studies have shown that having only one URG in your interview process gives that person essentially no chance of being hired; and having more than one underrepresented candidate dramatically increases the chances of a URG being hired*—something to keep in mind if you’re thinking of implementing the Rooney Rule in your organization. Be sure to think through the first principles, potential implications, and ways to get the team on board, to make sure your efforts are successful.
As we’ve discussed, URGs leave tech at an alarming rate. Microinequities, stereotype threat, tokenism, and lack of acknowledgement of URG identities lead to career stagnation and dissatisfaction with growth opportunities.* Unless URGs are entering an inclusive environment—one where they’re welcomed and set up for success—they are most likely to leave. In other words, improvements that focus on the top-of-funnel numbers are important, but are only a small part of the overall solution to improve D&I.
Evaluating and interviewing
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: Interviewing, of the Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring.
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.
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.
Interviewers look at the resume as they walk into the room. Instead, train them to read the job description.Nicole Sanchez*
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.
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*
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
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
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:
Ask behavioral questions related to how the candidate interacts with others.
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
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.
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
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, 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*
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.
Compensation disparity between URGs and their white male colleagues is a particularly prevalent issue.**
Pew determined that across STEM fields, women make 79% of what men make. Blacks in STEM make 73% of what whites earn, Hispanics make 85%, and Asians make 125% more than whites.* Men are offered more money than women for the same role 60% of the time. These disparities add up over time, as compensation adjustments are often calculated on a percentage basis from base salaries. Evidence suggests that the equity gap between men and women is even higher than the pay gap. The good news is that you have control over getting pay right at the hiring stage.
caution The first step to compensating fairly is understanding that URGs are often under-leveled not only at their current job, but also when they change jobs. Hiring a URG at a lower level than their previous job is a red flag. It means you are very likely already starting them off in a lower salary band than they deserve.
Second, at the offer stage, it’s critical to do a check to make sure the offer you’re putting out is at least equal to the last offer you gave to a white male at that level. If you need help tracking that data, you can use a compensation calibration worksheet.
Finally, compensation encompasses more than just salary. I’s important to remember that benefits are not just something to mention in job descriptions, but are also part of the compensation package. Getting them right is a crucial step in building effective D&I efforts.
Many benefits in the industry tend to appeal to young, single men, and feel exclusionary when they are not offered in balance with a rich mix of other benefits options (e.g., foosball but no childcare). Companies can improve this by supporting employees when they need to take leave, rearrange their schedules, or take other measures to manage their work-life balance successfully.Project Include*
Understanding ways in which your company can close the benefits gap can give you a strong competitive edge.
Where success does happen, you’ll find a deep, ongoing commitment to creating inclusive environments and a mapping of diversity and inclusion to the organization’s values or business strategy.
In 2010, Etsy* was in the midst of an engineering team overhaul. They had decided they needed a fresh team to take on the challenges the company was facing, and in building this incoming team, hiring women engineers was to be a priority. Yet in the year that followed, they experienced an 86% growth in the engineering team and a 35% decline in gender diversity—they had hired 38 new engineers, of which only two were women. In examining what happened during that year, they found three major contributing factors to their failure:
Talking about diversity on its own was not an effective strategy.
To change outcomes, they needed to make significant changes to their interview process.
Because there was no proof of their commitment to diversity, candidates from underrepresented groups were not confident in working for them.
These reflections informed a new approach that not only overhauled their recruiting efforts, but also incorporated new initiatives to create a work environment that resulted in more fair and equitable outcomes for all employees.
With this information, within a year Etsy grew their representation of women in engineering from 4.7% to 18%. Today, according to their most recent diversity report, that number stands at 29.3%. While recruiting with diversity in mind is important, it is just one part of an effective diversity and inclusion program. Enduring diversity requires a sustained commitment to inclusion—an evergreen readiness to change and adapt your organization’s policies, procedures, and behaviors to create a place where every employee can thrive.
While examples from companies like Etsy can help us stay motivated, it can be misleading to look only at the percentages and demographics at other companies. People often look for these numbers elsewhere because they want to follow someone else’s model and because they want or need to prove that success is possible. But “success,” when it comes to D&I, is completely dependent on your team and the company you work for. It’s perfectly fair to take some tips, advice, and ideas from those who have been through this before, and to take note of what the research tells us about where to look to see what’s working. But your goals should be your own; and focusing on numbers can be a distraction from the deeper work of building inclusive practices and policies.
In a summary of several studies into how to assess and improve inclusion, Laura Sherbin and Ripa Rashid lay out four areas for organizations to focus on, beyond the numbers:
Inclusive leaders: A collection of six behaviors, including making it safe to propose novel ideas and empowering team members to make decisions, define leaders who create more inclusive environments. According to Sherbin and Rashid, of employees who report that their team leader has at least three of these traits, “87% say they feel welcome and included in their team, 87% say they feel free to express their views and opinions, and 74% say they feel that their ideas are heard and recognized.”
Authenticity: Their research also found that 37% of Black and Hispanic respondents and 45% of Asians say they “need to compromise their authenticity” in order to meet their company’s standards of demeanor or style.
Networking and visibility: Sponsorship is critical for career advancement for members of URGs. “A sponsor is a senior-level leader who elevates their protégé’s visibility within the corridors of power, advocates for key assignments and promotions for them, and puts their reputation on the line for the protégé’s advancement.” A sponsor also improves a URG’s satisfaction with their rate of career advancement and reduces the likelihood of that person quitting.
Clear career paths: Sherbin and Rashid found that, among women, “29% say their career isn’t satisfying, and 23% feel stalled in their careers.” Other URGs feel similarly stymied, often without a clear course for how to improve their situation. In the sections on levels and compensation, we strongly advocate for having clearly defined ladders for career progression, which are transparently mapped to salary and other compensation.
Beyond the advice above, three additional strategies can help you iterate and improve your hiring process:
Solicit and evaluate candidate feedback
Setting up a basic feedback process is low-hanging fruit that all hiring teams can grab, and it’s especially helpful in the context of D&I. Anonymous feedback can show you a lot that’s going on in your process that you wouldn’t catch otherwise. But do this only if you plan to listen closely to the feedback, even when it hurts.
Send a survey to candidates with both quantitative questions (such as, “How likely are you to reapply for one of our positions in the future?”) and qualitative questions (like, “What was the highlight of your interview experience? What about a low point?”).
Have every single response read by a human. You never know how much impact one comment from an underrepresented candidate could have in making you aware of your blind spots. And if you end up hearing about an inappropriate joke from an interviewer or a hiring manager who was passive-aggressive, treat the feedback as a gift to help you improve in a way that you would not have known about otherwise. By ensuring the same mistake doesn’t get repeated, you’re getting better at your game and will be less likely to lose top candidates in the future.
Look at conversion rates with D&I in mind
Take your conversion rates (for example, what percentage of resumes submitted are moved to phone screen?) and intersect them with demographic data collected by Equal Employment Opportunity, an optional set of questions that can be enabled in your ATS, like Lever.*
For example, you might find that underrepresented candidates are passing phone screens but falling off after onsite panels at a disproportionately high rate. This tells you there is likely some sort of bias in a particular stage. With this information, you can identify the problem like a detective: maybe it’s an untrained interviewer turning people off. Maybe the type of questions asked are unfair to a certain group.
In addition to conversion rates, you can run the same analysis with interview scores. If underrepresented groups are consistently ranking lower in certain stages and questions, maybe there’s underlying bias at play. More opportunities for detective work! (If you aren’t yet confident about how to employ recruiting metrics, Jennifer Kim wrote a beginner’s guide, “Recruiting Analytics Made Simple.”)