Diversifying Engineering Referrals at Pinterest

Abby Maldonado, Diversity Programs Specialist & Ryan Probasco, Head of Product Engineering

Referrals are an important part of recruiting at any tech company. So, for companies that care about hiring a diverse workforce, diversity in referrals is a critical component to that strategy. At Pinterest, we don’t incentivize referrals monetarily like many other tech companies, and we rely on a number of other sources to find candidates. Still, we want to be sure that our referrals are contributing to our goal of becoming a more diverse organization.

Through our Inclusion Labs partnership with Paradigm, we learned that one challenge with creating a diverse referral pool is that people’s networks tend to be homogenous. (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Cook, 2001). In addition, because people tend to think of those who fit certain stereotypes or patterns for a role, they might be more apt to refer such candidates. (Uhlmann and Cohen, 2005).

Given this research, we hypothesized that one strategy for increasing diversity in the referral pool might be as simple as prompting employees to refer candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. While networks may be homogenous, we suspected that most people have probably worked with excellent candidates from underrepresented backgrounds, even if they don’t come to mind immediately. We hoped that if asked employees specifically to do so, people might think harder about qualified candidates that come from these backgrounds.

We tested this hypothesis by prompting engineers to refer candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. We liked this idea in part because it engages the entire organization in taking ownership for our diversity efforts. To establish a baseline from which to measure, we looked at referrals over a six-week period. We then posed a challenge to the team to refer 10x more candidates from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds and 2x more women over the next six weeks. During the period of our challenge, we saw a 24 percent increase in the percent of women referred and a 55x increase in the percentage of candidates from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds.

Given this success, we’re posing a similar challenge to senior engineering leaders. Each member of Pinterest’s engineering leadership team has committed to making two referrals of candidates from underrepresented backgrounds over the next quarter. The Diversity and Recruiting teams will provide this group with opportunities to attend demographically diverse conferences and networking events, 1:1 coaching to dig deeper into our networks and other opportunities to expand our networks to include more people from underrepresented backgrounds.

While we are excited to continue efforts to diversify our pool of referrals, we know that referrals alone will not make Pinterest the diverse company we want to be. We are also working to build a more diverse candidate pipeline in other ways, such as recruiting from a broader set of colleges and launching an apprenticeship program.

Through Inclusion Labs, we will continue to experiment with new strategies and share our efforts, in the hope that what we’re learning at Pinterest will benefit our peers and help create a more diverse industry.