BACKED People & Culture Series
DE&I in hiring is a process, not a policy
How to build a fair & inclusive recruitment strategy from scratch
Allow me to introduce myself: I’m a white woman with a Cambridge degree. (Q: How do you know if someone went to Oxbridge? A: Don’t worry, they’ll tell you). I tell you this not to brag, but to confess. You see, eighteen years ago, when I received my acceptance letter to study within those ivory towers, I believed in my heart that if a miner’s granddaughter from a single-income household in Glasgow could ‘do it’ through sheer determination and hard work (as I saw it), then anyone could. I was low on gratitude, ‘privilege’ was for toffs, and I didn’t yet understand that the now-embarrassing number of things I took for granted offered me unearned advantages. In short, I was a brat, and I had a steep learning curve ahead.
After graduation, I was in for a shock. Starter jobs in my chosen field demanded months of unpaid work followed by starter salaries of as little as £12k. Access to countless arenas was based on what a person could afford to live on (read: how much their family could afford to support them) before they even began to deal with complications of ethnicity, sex, social class, nationality, disability, age, neurodivergence, sexual orientation, gender presentation, or any intersection of the above. I realised the notion of meritocracy I’d bought into all this time was a scam, and as the scales fell from my eyes, I wanted my money back. I pivoted, moved into a career in recruitment, and frankly, I stayed mad about it.
And I’ve seen some terrible things in my time in recruitment: abuses of power, flagrant violations of employment law, and liberal, open application of biases both unconscious and otherwise. One fund manager explicitly instructed me to find him a wife (the job title was “PA”, but work experience didn’t feature on his list of requirements. For avoidance of doubt, I refused). An ill-fated stint at one of the big-name agencies saw me challenging racist, ableist language and behaviour on at least a weekly basis, before I was asked to stop rocking the boat or leave.
Then year after year, as head of the internship & graduate programme at a reputable consultancy, I saw bright young things from the same eight universities being handed their tickets to a lucrative career. I wondered aloud if the company really would burn to the ground if I was allowed to recruit outside Oxbridge and the Russell Group. The idea was met with derision: why should we ‘lower our bar’? As if diversifying our pipeline were some bleeding-heart act of philanthropy. As if it wouldn’t raise our bar by default.
When I landed as head of People Ops at Backed, I soon became aware of the absolute state VC was in by just about every diversity metric. I mean, there’s no hiding from it; it’s the industry’s greatest scandal. But I was also confident that I was now part of a team that truly wanted to effect change in the ecosystem for the better. Finally, an opportunity to turn my values into outcomes. The partners trusted me to synthesise my learnings from the good, bad and illegal I’d witnessed in my career so far, and design what a really amazing hiring process, solving for DE&I, could look like for us.
At first, I thought I’d write a policy, to complement the Anti-Discrimination & Anti-Harassment Policy I produced when we joined the #MovingForward movement. But here’s the thing: I don’t really love policies. In my opinion, too many companies hide behind empty words — think of mealy-mouthed “we are committed to” and “we do not condone” press junkets — because spotlighting their actions would have damning consequences. What we needed wasn’t a policy, it was a strategy.
It took a lot of reading, thinking and (most importantly) listening — in particular, we received invaluable consultancy from OG Jason Touray of Black Unicorn — but like most good things, the Backed DE&I hiring strategy is actually quite simple. By sharing it here, I hope to save you the thinking time when you’re trying to better your own company or industry so you can jump straight into action.
Your person ‘specification’ is way too specific
Women will self-select out of a process at advertisement stage unless they believe they’re 100% qualified. Men, however, will throw their hat in when they meet only 60% of the criteria. Imagine all the missed talent! Think of all the mediocre dudes currently working in some talented woman’s dream job, all because the ad said a second European language was “desirable, but not essential”! When workshopping the JD, you need to be very clear on what the role actually requires. Keep interrogating the list of qualities and qualifications you deem necessary. Why will the successful candidate need a degree? What’s the difference between 2.5 and 3 years’ experience? Do they even have to work from one of your offices?
If items on the person spec don’t stand up to detailed questioning, kill them. They’re holding you back, along with some outstanding potential applicants.
It’s important to note here that I believe hiring for potential is always a smart move for a number of reasons, but it’s also one of the most inclusive things you can do in your hiring process. There are innumerable obstacles to talented people from underestimated and disadvantaged demographics gaining a foothold in their desired professions and industries, so if you insist on a certain amount of experience, at a particular set of companies — or on industry-specific experience — you’re ensuring that, more often than not, the moneyed white men will rise to the top. Hiring for transferable skills and a growth mindset, thinking laterally about transferable skills from nontraditional industries & backgrounds, doesn’t just save you money and minimise turnover; it diversifies your pipeline by default.
Oh, and you should always, always publish your salary range in the job ad. All else aside, you’ll get around 30% more applicants this way, and you’ll avoid wasting everyone’s precious time because of mismatched expectations. But this also shows a commitment to fair and open recruitment practices. It’s the right kind of dog whistle.
The Old Boys’ (and Girls’) Network is too good at serving itself
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard that “the best people are already in your network”. Who is the “you” that this speaks to? It’s one thing to agree that a recommended candidate is recommended with good reason, another to assume that because an applicant came through someone’s contacts from the Big 4, or the Magic Circle, or the Ivy League alumni network, they’re automatically a better match to your role than inbound ad response from people who haven’t had the good fortune to meet one of your friends.
Also, birds of a feather flocking as they do, if you’re white and middle class (and above), the chances are that your networks are also predominantly white and middle class (and above).
If you’re a white Princeton grad from Goldman Sachs, who’s going to recommend you the Black whizzkid who dropped out of school at 16 and taught themselves to code?
At Backed, as with other employers, I noticed these systems in action and was struck by how harmless it all looked: a coffee here, a drink there, just to keep an eye on “rising talent”. But this was not the only talent out there; and it was only “rising” because influential people had recognised and nurtured it. It’s all so normal. It was clear that no-one participating had made any conscious decision to keep the doors coded and the funnel narrow, but when I raised it, it was agreed that these practices did give a certain kind of person an unfair advantage — and that by extension, it put others at a considerable disadvantage. To counter this, I enshrined the following into procedure:
- All candidates come through the same application process. Where someone is referred to us by a trusted associate, they are politely invited to apply through the normal channels. You would be surprised how often they decline to do so.
- A live vacancy is a published vacancy. A job is not live until the job description and application link are published. Our networks are alerted to a new role’s existence only at the same time as or after publication of the job description/advertisement.
- No informal ‘interviews’ — and if an upcoming role does end up being discussed in a meeting, the JD is rushed to publication.
Speaking of job ads…
Keep it impersonal
Even with the best of intentions, we are all absolutely full of biases. Unconscious biases don’t make you evil or even special, but it is important to keep them from creeping in at the top of the funnel. The best way to achieve this is to anonymise inbound ad response. Perhaps you worry that an applicant’s English will be poor because you can’t pronounce the name on their CV; maybe someone named Ruth bullied you at school. Almost certainly you won’t be thinking about these things consciously as you toss a resume onto the virtual slush pile, but these totally irrational first impressions cloud your judgment and stop good people getting through.
Even the most stunning list of accomplishments hits murky waters if, in the darkest recesses of someone’s brain, the notion lingers that an applicant’s surname rhymes with “arsehole”.
Your language is putting good people off
Do you have a hardcore, work-hard, play-hard environment? Do you only hire ‘ninjas’ and ‘rock stars’? If so — firstly please consider instead looking for somebody competent with an unproblematic social media presence, and remember that 2007 was a long time ago. More importantly, these terms are all commonly coded as masculine — and they’re some of the more obvious ones. To avoid unconsciously putting people off before they’re past the first paragraph, we run job ads through the Gender Decoder and tweak accordingly. Because we’re fun people who like a good time, we keep tweaking until it’s 50/50 masculine/feminine.
You can’t afford to wait for the talent to come to you
Unless you’re a household name, in which case I’m flattered you’re reading this, diverse talent doesn’t know that you’re a cool employer, not like all the other employers.
It’s not enough to whack your role up in the usual places and then complain that you’re just not getting enough quality applications from [underrepresented demographic]. If you’re serious about creating a diverse talent pool, you’ve got to put the work in. Where do the talented people you’re not seeing spend their networking time? If you don’t know, find out. Get an intro. Advertise there. Keep showing up. Otherwise, how do people know you’re to be trusted?
Now, on to interviews. I’m sorry to break it to you, but
You’re probably not as good a judge as you think you are
I cannot overstate the life-changing value of a really high-quality unconscious bias training programme. It has to be approached in good faith, and it isn’t a cure-all; but done well, it should equip you to handle your biases during your recruitment process. We received bespoke instruction from Abadesi, CEO of the in-demand Hustle Crew, who tailored her materials towards our goals and sent us off with a practical list of actions that has permanently altered and improved our recruitment practices.
Of these, one of the most important was to have a standard set of questions at each interview stage. No one can argue with a system where every candidate has the opportunity to answer the same questions. The questions generally home in on transferable skills and EQ, leaving background, education and preferred skiing resorts — I have literally been asked this at interview — out of the picture.
Another ‘eureka’ moment was the advent of the scoring matrix. Directly after each interview we score candidates out of five against a few pre-defined metrics. First, they’re measured against each of our values; then we mark them on technical competencies, and so on. We also note any affinity biases in our interview notes (schooling, pop culture references, sense of humour…)
You can’t eliminate your biases, but you can use them to keep yourself honest.
Also, where possible, we try to have a woman present and asking questions (note-taking doesn’t count) at every first-round interview. Putting a woman in a position of authority from the get-go shows interviewees of all genders that women are listened to and taken seriously. It’s also useful, in my experience, for weeding out candidates with weird lowkey sexist behaviours.
Finally, we offer detailed developmental feedback to every candidate who doesn’t progress. Not everyone has been in training to answer tough questions on the spot since their primary school debating team; and this is one way of helping to level the playing field in general. Furthermore, it’s a gift to the candidate, to show gratitude for the time and consideration they’ve given to us.
There’s a fairly huge caveat to add. None of the above will make any meaningful difference if your company is somehow unappealing or unwelcoming to those from underrepresented or nontraditional backgrounds. As a people practitioner, I’m a staunch believer in the credo of psychological safety, that your team members should feel able to bring their whole selves to work, without (much) code-switching. If you are going to claim psychological safety for your organisation, it must be true for every single employee without exception; and it must be true for every interviewee who walks through your doors. Without it, you will either fail to attract the talent you seek, or quickly lose it.
Moreover, before implementing a recruitment strategy like this, it is absolutely crucial that you get buy-in from company leadership. Without this, any DE&I initiative will fall flat at the first sign of friction — and there will be friction — causing resentment and no small amount of embarrassment. This is where professional diversity, equity & inclusion consultants come in. If you inspect your house and find it is not in order, they will work with you to help you rebuild and rearrange it.
Thank you for reading this article! Does it strike a chord? Anything missing? Leave heckles & billets-doux in the comments.