With more than twenty years of experience in Human Resources, I’ve seen just about every kind of hiring practice, including ones that truly help a company hire for diversity and those that undermine a company’s best intentions. Recently, my Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion work with whole organizations has led me to reflect on the way hiring and other HR practices can either help or harm DEI goals.
These past few months, as I’ve been guiding company leaders through deeply personal and challenging DEI work, I think about the ways they can set the company up for success with a few practical and impactful choices. I’m excited that my work lately is giving me perspective from both the women and people of color who I help with interview strategies and to get hired, and the companies who are in a position to meet them with solid HR practices.
Companies’ Biggest Hiring Mistakes
The single biggest mistake is not an overt mistake: it’s not knowing what you don’t know.
I see many leaders rise and succeed by the power of their hard work and intelligence. This gets dangerous when these leaders believe they have all the competencies needed to hire and manage in their organizations, without actually understanding the importance of hiring with cultural competency to move their organizations forward. HR is incredibly hard to do right—you need resources, training, practice, and a lot of time to build good practices. Establishing an interviewing process alone is a challenging feat.
Here are some other common company hiring mistakes:
Good hiring is time-intensive. When managers try to save time, thinking they are also saving money, they end up paying more in the end.
A common approach is to skip the hiring process altogether and just make a phone call, very often to a manager’s own recruiting firm or alumni group. It sounds simple enough, but this insider network approach almost always results in sameness and safety.
Insider hiring also fosters intense bias—you hand-picked the hiring source, so you’re going to be far more likely to want the candidate in order to validate yourself. What’s lost is real candidate quality, diversity, innovation, and company evolution.
Organizations need measures to account for diversity. If they can’t find enough diverse candidates in the recruiting stage, they need to review the process and start the search again.
Refusing to “Sacrifice Quality for Diversity”
The bias is built into the words themselves. When companies are merely committed to diversity on paper, they will say things like, “I’m all for diversity, but I don’t want to sacrifice quality.”
Unconscious bias is speaking here, revealing the default thinking of diversity = lower quality, that white is preferable because it’s inherently smarter, better, brighter, that diversity would stand in the way of getting the best candidate.
What does this thinking lead to? Mediocracy.
Assuming that sameness means quality will make you see quality where it doesn’t exist, holding white candidates to a lower standard, receiving subpar work, and fooling yourself into believing you’re getting the best.
Hiring without a Job Description
This happens most when a position is vacated and needs to be backfilled. Too often, companies don’t reevaluate the position’s contributions and value before assigning it to another body. Without reviewing the job description and truly re-envisioning the purpose of the role, companies have no idea what a hire will actually do to push forward a strategy, solve a problem, or fill a need.
Never Straying from the Same Old Networks
It’s like eating different menu items but always from the same restaurant—you think you’re trying something new, but you’re not actually branching out at all.
When companies only hire from the same recruiting firm, the same online channels, and the same alumni networks, they are getting the sameness dressed up a bit differently each time. Insular and exclusive talent pools give you easy and fast hiring, but definitely not diverse hiring.
Relying on a Recruiting Firm to Do Your Diversity Work
At the executive and partner level, you’re not going to see jobs posted on Monster, Indeed, or LinkedIn. Candidates are usually sourced by recruiting firms who may or may not have rigorous or intentional practices for sourcing diverse candidates.
Very often, I see firms rely on their own recruiters’ networks, stagnating the candidate pool even further. Without accountability to diversity, recruiting firms often source candidates who are simply enculturated to a particular corporate style, without insistence on diverse backgrounds, perspectives, or quality.
Real Diversity Requires Better Hiring Practices
If it’s time for your organization to strengthen its hiring practices, you need to invest in a few key steps and make some new commitments.
Write a Detailed Job Description
Not only do you need to know what and who you are looking for, but you need to pass this description onto your recruiting firm (if you’re still using one). Articulate how the role contributes to the company’s vision and strategy, and the problem the position will help solve. Specify the skills and competencies you expect, and the experience required to execute the job duties. Don’t let a recruiting firm simply shoulder-tap candidates—send them out with a detailed position to fill.
And be mindful of how you write the job description. Review your minimum requirements to ensure you are not screening out good candidates, and use gender-neutral language that could attract a larger pool of candidates. Did you know that female candidates are far less likely to respond to longer job ads? The reason: women tend to apply for jobs when they meet every single requirement, while men will tend to apply for jobs when they know they can meet at least some of the requirements.
Hold Informational Interviews
Bringing people to your company for informational sessions will require time and resources, but it’s a guaranteed way to open up your networks. If you target candidates of color, you can start to diversify your network. Candidates of color will share out among their networks details about your company’s info and their experiences with you.
Seek Out Diversity Networks
Most universities and associations will have diversity networks. The American Bar Association has a Diversity & Inclusion Center and a Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice, a Hispanic Commission, a Women’s Commission, and many more diversity commissions for you to engage. Seek out your industry’s similar channels, bring them to your organization, and put your organization in front of them.
Hold Your Recruiting Firm Accountable
If you’re going to pay a recruiting firm, they should be able to describe their sourcing practices and their diversity commitments. Ask, and if their answers aren’t satisfactory, engage a different firm.
Clean Up the Interview Process
Maintaining good hiring hygiene requires a systematic checking of biases at every stage, especially during the interview. Interviewers can default to their gut, a personal connection, biases for pedigree, personal and cultural similarities, and their own preferred interview questions. Conducting all interviews with the same set of questions based on skills and qualifications begins to eliminate these biases’ potential to skew the process.
Get Actively Uncomfortable
According to a 2017 PRRI study, 75% of white Americans don’t have any non-white friends. The effects of white segregation can be lasting and get easily infused into our work. Lack of exposure to difference means a lack of exposure to personal discomfort, which often leads to seeking out sameness and familiarity. Companies and their hiring managers need to commit to getting and staying uncomfortable in order to make real diversity a priority and a reality.
What Every Interviewee Needs to Know
What does all this mean for the reader who is looking for a position and trying to discern a company’s real practices and commitments? A few practical tips and guidelines can help you ask the kinds of questions and look for the clues that can reveal how a company views diversity and lives its values.
Ask about the Interview Process
Casually and openly, you can ask about the interview process during your interview. You’re trying to find out how the company finds its candidates and if they’re actively engaged in diverse sourcing. No need to grill your interviewer or make this last any longer than five minutes, but do ask things like, How many candidates will you be interviewing? I see you found me via X channel. How have other candidates come to you? What do you anticipate to be the steps in the interview process?
The truth is, a company that has built an equitable process will proudly tell you about it. If they’re putting in the time, money, and effort into diversity hiring, they will want to boast about it. If they have nothing to offer in this area, take it as a red flag that they either don’t have a diversity commitment or are hostile to one.
Be Cautious about Blind Hiring Software
It can be a positive sign that a company is thinking about checking its biases, but blind hiring software is no guarantee of good practices. Sometimes, the software can be weighted arbitrarily or overridden entirely by a decision-maker. And the program itself must be written in a way that accounts for human bias. For example, many A.I. programming teams are comprised of all white men, who then infuse the software with unconscious biases.
Know the Required Skills and Competencies
Either from the job posting, the recruiter, or the company itself, you should be told what core competencies and job skills you need to succeed in the position. If a company doesn’t say what these are, you can bet they will hire for cultural fit and sameness rather than top qualifications.
Know How to Tell Your Story
I’m going to get into detail about this in my next article, but for now, it’s important to know that your ultimate interview task is to tell a story that demonstrates how you fit the job’s skills and competencies, and not just recite the skills you have. If the job description doesn’t allow you to prepare your story ahead of time, you’ve got to be ready to ask what the skills are during the interview and then create a compelling, impromptu story.
Stay tuned for my next article on how you can build your story and be ready to tell it during an interview.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If you would like to receive her newsletter directly in your inbox, please sign up here.