How To Design A Technical Hiring Process That Increases Diversity
Seven actionable steps to build a more balanced team.
Most founders and hiring managers want to do the right thing when it comes to increasing diversity. Diverse teams have been proven to perform better and the downsides of neglecting diversity in the early stages of startup life are increasingly clear. At the same time, most startups struggle to be proactive when it comes to recruiting diverse technical talent. As you race to build your company, survival instincts and speed often trump a thoughtful long-term approach. It’s easy for a homogenous culture to become the status quo, which makes it difficult for underrepresented candidates to feel like they belong. By the time you become Facebook or Google, compounding takes over and even investing tens of millions of dollars in diversity recruiting efforts can do little to meaningfully move the needle on diversity.
Founders, recruiters, and hiring managers at early and growth stage startups have a unique opportunity to get it right from the start and establish a solid foundation for people of all races, genders, and backgrounds. Here are seven straightforward steps you can take to get it right from the beginning:
Don’t exclude candidates through degree requirements or Ivy League preferences.
One easy step to expand your candidate reach: focus on relevant skills and experiences instead of academic pedigree. Lose the bias you might have for candidates from Ivy League schools and consider dropping your degree requirements altogether. While including a degree requirement – like a B.S. in Computer Science – can be one way to screen candidates for a level of skill, it also excludes candidates who are self-taught or attended a coding bootcamp. Instead of screening candidates through their academic credentials, screen candidates based on their assessment performance, skills, projects, and experience.
Top tech companies like Google, Apple, IBM, Intel and Slack are all among the growing movement to focus less on academics and more on a candidate’s experience, skills, and potential. Apple, IBM, and Intel have all removed degree requirements from their job openings. Google no longer focuses on factors like GPA and school prestige, and also has an established computer science partnership with Historically Black University, Howard University. Slack has tapped into the talent pool that comes from coding bootcamps and organizations that serve underrepresented candidates. While it makes sense to uphold the same rigorous standard, being thoughtful about your preferences at the top of the funnel gives candidates from underrepresented backgrounds a chance to shine in your interview process.
Expand your candidate search beyond traditional channels.
Coding bootcamps are a great way to find technical talent from non-traditional backgrounds, as they offer students a robust technical education without the same systemic barriers that often exist within collegiate computer science programs. Some coding bootcamps also specifically serve underrepresented groups or offer a remote educational option, training new developers across the country. The Grace Hopper Program, for example, is a coding program for women that teaches everything from computer science fundamentals to front and back-end software development, and also does not charge upfront tuition. Hackbright Academy is the leading engineering school for women in the Bay Area, and has alumna at Google, Dropbox, and Airbnb. Lambda School, while not specifically focused on female engineers, is a remote program that doesn’t require upfront tuition, reducing the barriers to entry that other coding bootcamps might have.
You can also forge connections with organizations that seek to uplift and support underrepresented minorities in tech, such as the Society of Women Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers and Code2040. Additionally, there are several organizations that support LGBTQ folks in tech, like Trans Tech Social and Lesbians Who Tech, that your team can connect with to expand your talent pipeline. When recruiting at the entry level, expand your focus schools to include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Women’s colleges, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), state schools, and community colleges with strong engineering programs to diversify your pipeline.
Check the language in your job posting.
Did you know that the language in your job posting can turn away candidates before they even apply?
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that job postings that use masculine-sounding words (think: ninja, rockstar, aggressive, dominant) turned away female applicants, and a robust analysis of job descriptions by Textio found similar results. Textio analyzed over 25,000 jobs published in 2017 from companies like Amazon, Salesforce, Facebook, Twitter and Slack and found a correlation between gendered language and the gender balance of applicants. Phrases or words that conveyed aggression or competitiveness (like Amazon’s use of “Maniacal” and Salesforce’s use of “Work hard, play hard”) resulted in more male applicants, whereas phrases that emphasized building relationships and learning, (Like Slack’s use of “lasting relationships” and Twitter’s use of “Passion for learning”) translated to a higher proportion of applications from women.
It can be difficult to identify when unconscious bias creeps into job descriptions. That’s why many companies are utilizing Textio’s augmented writing product that identifies biased language in job postings and are steering clear of traditionally masculine-sounding words. Beyond the job description itself, be wary of how you describe the culture and perks that exist in your office. Are you only emphasizing your work-hard play-hard culture? Try highlighting the close-knit community and what makes the people on your team stand out, as well.
Take steps to mitigate unconscious bias in your interview process.
Because unconscious bias, by definition, isn’t something we can actively control, it’s important to take concrete steps to minimize its presence in your interview process. An essential step to reducing bias in the interview process is creating defined scorecards before the interview takes place, and ensuring everyone who is interviewing a candidate will abide by the evaluation criteria. Your scorecards should be an agreed-upon set of criteria that help evaluate if the candidate will be able to do the job well. This cuts down on the “culture fit” trap. Instead of having a “gut-feeling” that you like a candidate – which could stem from sharing characteristics or interests with a candidate – your team can evaluate candidates on the skills they bring to the table.
Slack, for example, detailed its process of defining candidate criteria to the The Atlantic. Each team decides on the characteristics and skills a candidate would need to succeed at Slack, and then the team members create the criteria required to assess those skills and characteristics (typically through behavioral questions). Then, each candidate applying for the role faces the same set of questions and assessments. Rachel Thomas details a similar approach in her widely-read Medium piece, “How to Make Tech Interviews a Little Less Awful.” She writes that, “Every candidate should receive the same test, be asked the same questions, and should be graded in the same way,” pointing to Slack’s process as a standout example.
Slack has also sidestepped one of the traditional formats you find in many technical interviews, especially at large companies – the whiteboard interview. Critics of whiteboard interviews say that the interview style typically favors recent grads of CS programs and can add unnecessary pressure to candidates, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds. That’s why Slack, according to The Atlantic, opted for “blind-code reviews,” where candidates complete a take-home or in-office assignment which is then evaluated anonymously.
Whether or not you scrap your whiteboard interview, it’s important to craft an interview process that evaluates candidates with a standard and thoughtful set of criteria to determine if a candidate can be a valuable addition to your team.
Evaluate your efforts throughout the hiring process.
To ensure your hiring process is actually working to create a more diverse pipeline – and in turn, a more diverse team – it’s important to measure and evaluate your efforts throughout the process.
You can start by analyzing which candidates are coming in at the top-of-the-funnel. If you aren’t receiving a diverse range of applicants, review your job posting as well as your recruitment marketing materials. Is your job posting unintentionally using gendered language? Do your external company pages reflect a diverse team and an inclusive culture? If you’re sourcing candidates, similar questions apply. Are you creating a diverse talent pipeline from the beginning and, if not, what changes can you make to bring in a more diverse range of candidates?
Next, track any patterns that may reveal an unconscious bias or barrier that exists in your hiring process. For example – are you consistently receiving great applications from qualified bootcamp graduates, only to find your hiring manager passing on all of them? Does your talent pipeline start out diverse, but your offers are always extended to the same kind of candidate? Using an ATS (We like Greenhouse) or even an excel spreadsheet to track how (and which) candidates are progressing through the pipeline can help you identify if there’s a pattern of bias in your hiring process.
Don’t just focus on diversity – create an inclusive culture where all individuals can thrive.
You can stack your talent pool with candidates from underrepresented backgrounds, but if your company doesn’t have an inclusive culture, it will be difficult to maintain a diverse team. So what does an inclusive culture look like?
An inclusive culture means that everyone feels valued, heard, and welcomed. Here are some of the steps we think are most important:
Educate your team on what a diverse and inclusive culture means to your company. It’s important to ensure that everyone on your team is on the same page and understands what diversity and inclusion looks like. Hold a team meeting and take the time to explain that diversity encompasses everything from race to gender to sexual orientation to age – and more. Explain why having representation from different backgrounds is important to the company, as well as what having an inclusive culture looks like. Have an open dialogue with team members – consider asking for suggestions on what makes a culture welcoming and supportive. Beyond an in-person meeting, continue the conversation. Send educational articles on D&I to your team, answer and ask questions, and make it clear you value an open and inclusive culture.
Check the behavior of your coworkers and employees. Defining what an inclusive culture looks like means that you can hold your team members accountable for contributing to that culture. Notice that your male team members constantly interrupt their female coworkers during a meeting? Bring it to their attention after the meeting, or implement a “no interruption” rule. Hear a “harmless” joke that actually alienates marginalized groups? Don’t tolerate it and bring these instances up with your coworkers or employees if that kind of behavior surfaces. (Here’s a helpful guide for navigating those kinds of conversations.)
Implement workplace policies that are mindful of individual identities and their needs.
Having a flexible work policy, for example, can help working parents and caregivers feel included and valued in the workplace. Other things like ensuring you allow employees to observe different religious holidays, practices, and traditions is another part of building an inclusive culture. If you don’t have a dedicated HR department, research workplace policies and small changes you can make to support the needs of your team.
Plan team-building events that consider every member of your team. You can plan different events that might interest different team members, but only hosting happy hours, for example, can exclude individuals who choose not to drink. Encourage feedback and dialogue around any team events to ensure they are accessible to all.
Building a diverse and inclusive culture takes time, but the first step is to start. The longer you wait to prioritize diversity, the more “diversity debt” you will accrue, making it even more difficult to build a heterogeneous team later on. Continue to research best practices in building and retaining diverse teams and measure your progress. In addition to revamping your technical hiring process, make it clear to your employees that diversity is a priority. Be sure they are committed to upholding an inclusive culture, and encourage referrals of folks from underrepresented or nontraditional backgrounds. You should also ensure that the recruiting firms or platforms you use are providing you with a diverse pipeline of talent, as they naturally tend to reflect the lack of diversity in tech.
Increasing the diversity of your team doesn’t happen overnight. But if you take the initiative to build diversity into the foundation of your company, you can build a balanced team from the beginning.