Want to Hire More a More Diverse Set of People? Raise Your Bar.


“Does hiring more diverse people mean lowering the bar?”

This question comes up in almost every conversation I have about how tech companies can recruit and hire more people from underrepresented backgrounds. The concern about “lowering the bar” stems from an incorrect (and biased) belief that a company has a high bar designed to hire the best people, and the reason it hasn’t hired more diverse people is that they aren’t able to meet that bar.

In fact, in many cases it’s the opposite: companies have a poorly designed hiring bar that fails to adequately evaluate highly qualified, and often diverse, candidates. By relying on selection processes that are at odds with research on how to most effectively evaluate people, companies are making decisions based on information that isn’t relevant to the jobs for which they’re hiring. (Of course, attracting candidates from underrepresented backgrounds is also key to building more diverse teams. If too few diverse people are applying to work at your company, even the best hiring process won’t help; you’ll need to focus on expanding your sourcing strategy, creating a more inclusive and appealing culture, and writing better job descriptions.)

Here are three ways companies can raise their hiring bar and as a result hire better qualified and more diverse candidates:

(1) Democratize the process

Payments startup Stripe recently released a new description of its on-site engineering interview process. In it Stripe describes what candidates can expect in the interview process, what Stripe is assessing for, and how to prepare. It even includes tactical advice, like “come with questions for your interviewer.”

The description includes things that some people — people who have worked or interviewed at other tech companies with similar processes, people who went to schools that prepared them well for interviews, people who have networks of friends who can tell them what to expect — might already know. But they’re things that a lot of people, and often people from underrepresented backgrounds, may not know. By making all of this open and transparent, Stripe eliminates the information imbalance that often characterizes interview processes and creates a more level playing field.

(2) Evaluate people based on relevant skills

As Laszlo Bock explains in his recent book, Work Rules: “The best predictor of how someone will perform in a job is a work sample test … This entails giving candidates a sample piece of work, similar to that which they would do in the job, and assessing performance at it.” Technical interviews, interviews where engineers are asked to solve problems writing code, are a type of work sample test and can be an effective tool for evaluating engineering candidates. But many companies rely on a version of this test, writing code on a whiteboard (“whiteboarding”), that evaluates candidates on a type of challenge that’s very different than what they would actually be doing in the job.

Whiteboarding is also anxiety-inducing for many candidates and as a result may lead to false negatives, with candidates underperforming because of nervousness and not lack of skill or ability. Anxiety and nervousness could be particularly harmful to candidates from underrepresented backgrounds, who may be especially likely to confront these feelings for a number of reasons, including stereotype threat.

Because most engineers don’t code on a whiteboard on a regular basis, testing them on this specific skill, particularly in a context that is likely to make a lot of people anxious, is a bad tool for predicting performance.

Despite its obvious drawbacks, whiteboarding remains a fixture in many tech companies’ interviewing processes. But the collaboration and problem-solving skills proponents of whiteboarding often cite as its primary benefit can be evaluated in a less confrontational and anxiety-inducing context. Square, for example uses pair programming — a process much more aligned with what work at Square looks like, and as a result much better designed for identifying people who would work well at Square. A growing number of companies, like Stripe and Slack (disclosure: Slack is a Paradigm client), are skipping the whiteboarding interview in favor of coding exercises designed to more closely mimic the work candidates would be doing as engineers in those companies.

In technical and non-technical interviews, companies should strive to develop questions and exercises that evaluate people based on skills and qualifications relevant for the job, and tune everything else out.

(3) Ask a better culture fit question

“Culture fit” is a term that has come to have wildly different definitions across companies. Some companies assess for culture fit based on their values and the type of organization they’re trying to build; in others, I’ve heard interviewers acknowledge that they consider whether they’d want to spend time with someone outside of work as a determining factor in whether that person is a good culture fit. In general, “culture fit” can be highly subjective, and as a result it can be hard to evaluate without being influenced by bias. Because we tend to show favoritism for people who remind us of ourselves, interview processes that minimize interviewer subjectivity reduce bias in hiring.

Stripe made an important move towards minimizing bias in the “culture fit” component of its interview by shifting from an evaluation of whether Stripe employees would “want to hang out with” the candidate to a focus on whether the candidate is someone they’d actively seek to work with. At Google, interviewers look for what they call “Googleyness,” described as “comfort with ambiguity, your bias to action and your collaborative nature.” This “culture fit” assessment is designed to find people with personality types likely to thrive at Google, rather than people who interviewers would want to socialize with.

Each of these best practices highlights an important point: unbiased processes are valuable not only for ensuring that people from underrepresented backgrounds are evaluated fairly, but for making better hiring decisions overall. Organizations interested in hiring more diverse candidates need not lower their hiring bar; instead, they should raise the bar and create an interview process that takes a more rigorous, research-based approach to hiring.

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