How your job descriptions are holding your organization back

These 5 changes can help you recruit a richer, more diverse pool of candidates

Photo by GotCredit

I hear this all the time (especially from organizations run by white people): “We keep talking about how important diversity is for our organization, but whenever we actually post a job, most of the applicants are inevitably white men. How can we recruit a more diverse pool of candidates?”

There are many layers to this question. At SumOfUs, the organization I founded, we worked hard to build equity and inclusive practices into our hiring processes. As a result, by the time I had built the team to 35 amazing staff, we were majority female and over 40% people of color. It was deeply rewarding; our team was one of the most amazing groups I’ve ever worked with and we had incredibly high staff retention — over 85% for the last 3 years I was there, despite millennials being heavily over-represented on the team.

Building a more diverse and equitable organization is a long-term project that requires conscious investment at a lot of different stages. But for this article, I’m going to focus on just one element of recruitment: The job description itself.

Here are a few tips for writing more equity-oriented job descriptions that will help bring in a more diverse applicant pool and set the stage for a successful and equitable hiring process:

  1. Minimize the number of required qualifications for the position. Say that your job description requires familiarity with a particular software tool — one that only people who have worked in the field before would have used. If the other organizations in your field don’t have diverse staff, then you’ve already killed your chances of building a diverse candidate pool. Instead, consider a broader qualification like “the ability to learn new software tools quickly.” The rule of thumb: Try to paint a picture of a new hire who didn’t come in with that particular qualification, but is rocking the job after 4–6 months. If you can, then it’s not actually a requirement for the position — it’s merely a plus. (You may want to include a list of “big pluses” in your job description, separate from the “requirements” section.)
  2. Recognize the value of skills that diverse candidates could bring. For instance, if the position involves building relationships with new partners in the activist space, and your existing team is mostly white, someone who brings existing networks among activists of color will add tremendous value. Or, if your organization is trying to become more equitable and more diverse, you will benefit greatly from hiring staff who already have hands-on experience with anti-oppression work. Culturally, we are trained to recognize and highly value qualifications like Ivy League degrees that are more accessible to people with privilege, and to undervalue the skills that come from other forms of life experience. This is a form of structural and implicit bias. Naming and explicitly valuing these oft-undervalued skills will attract candidates with more diverse backgrounds. Brainstorm a list and include them in the job description as job requirements or big pluses.
  3. Make the diversity appeal substantive, not tokenistic. Saying “women, people of color, and LGBTQ people are encouraged to apply” does not tell candidates whether you really value their life experiences, or are just ticking off boxes. Instead, for example, a non-profit corporate watchdog might write: “We believe that corporations’ bad behavior disproportionately hurts the most marginalized people in society — including people of color, people from working class backgrounds, women and LGBTQ people. We believe that these communities must be centered in the work we do. Hence, we strongly encourage applications from people with these identities or who are members of other marginalized communities.”
  4. Include the salary range for the position. Salary transparency brings a huge set of advantages when it comes to building an equitable organization. But focusing purely on diversifying the pool of people who apply for your jobs: Women and people of color tend to be underpaid relative to the value of their work. White men tend to be overpaid. By posting a position’s salary range, you will disproportionately attract the qualified candidates for whom that salary will be a step up — who will tend to be women, people of color, and other people from marginalized backgrounds. On the flip side, not posting a salary range signals to those same people that this is yet another workplace where they will have to negotiate individually — a process they can generally expect to be rife with subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination.
  5. Check for coded language. Language is full of subtle cues. In a hundred small ways, the people who write your job descriptions (yourself included!) will inevitably end up writing something that appeals most to people similar to themselves. But to build a diverse organization, you need job descriptions that appeal to talented hires who are unlike your existing team. Textio.com is one tool that will scan your job description and identify phrases that tend to turn off women applicants — for instance, it flags terms like “killer” and “rock star” as coded male. You should also include a stage in the job description editing process to search for language that may be coded around class, race, etc. E.g., if, in a short paragraph describing a climate change project, you mention the effects of climate change on national parks but not the disproportionate impacts on communities of color, you are likely to be subconsciously suggesting to the reader that your organizational culture is predominantly white and upper-middle-class.

Taking these steps isn’t going to solve all your diversity problems, nor all your hiring problems. You will still need to invest a lot of time and energy into your pipeline — i.e., building relationships with potential recruits who would bring diversity to your organization. Hiring diversely isn’t sufficient to build an equitable team — your organization needs to do the hard work to build a welcoming and inclusive culture for folks who are different from your team’s mainstream. And hiring has plenty of other dimensions you need to nail when running an organization — see my piece Oops! Avoid these 6 big hiring and firing mistakes. But following these 5 steps with your job descriptions will help smooth your path to building a diverse, inclusive, and equitable team. Godspeed!

This article is one of a series of pieces I’m publishing with New Media Ventures, to support their investments in a new cohort of 17 startups doing vital work building progressive political infrastructure and championing progressive values.

Thanks to Kaytee Ray-Riek for contributing key points to this article. Kaytee runs a consulting practice specializing in helping organizations create an equitable and inclusive culture.