In tech recruiting, playing it safe is risky business

To land the best and brightest talent, HR and recruiters have to be willing to take risks. But that doesn't mean what you think it does.

aligning hr and it
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The Silicon Valley version of the American Dream goes something like this: a dishwasher, a bike messenger, an actor, a waiter (insert totally-unrelated-to-technology job title here) leverages his or her hobbyist-level coding skills to land a hot programming job and becomes a "rockstar developer."

And nearly everyone who works in tech, from CEOs, venture capitalists, startup founders, and programmers themselves will tell you they don't care what a candidate's background is; where they went to school; what gender, race, ethnicity they are. All that matters is their tech chops and whether they can do the job. That's terrific, in the hypothetical.

In practice, however, is where this dream breaks down; the HR professionals, hiring managers and tech recruiters who are on the front lines of hiring do care about those qualifications, to the detriment of both candidates and companies, says Harj Taggar, co-founder and CEO of technical hiring platform Triplebyte.

"Almost everyone has a version of this story, which is so interesting to me because HR and recruiting, even in tech, tend to be so risk-averse. It costs a lot of money to find, recruit, screen and hire talent, and they want to make sure they're getting the right fit and good ROI on their time and energy investment," Taggar says.

[ Related story: How to crack the coding challenge ]

The biggest risk? Not taking one

So while technology can be a merit-driven industry with opportunities for so many, HR and recruiting are sometimes acting as a barrier to the very differences in background, thought and experience companies are craving, he says. And this creates the biggest risk of all: not hiring diverse, innovative, creative and outside-the-box candidates.

Some companies are trying to circumvent these roadblocks with blind coding challenges, blind screenings, hiding resumes and identifying credentials from hiring managers and recruiters, but this isn't having the impact it should, Taggar says.

"These blind screenings and anonymous interviewing processes are really exciting developments, but the impact is minimal. That's because they're only applied to candidates who are in the middle of the hiring cycle; what's happening is a lot of these 'nontraditional' people are getting screened out at the top of the funnel, based on things like educational background or even unconscious biases around gender, race, that kind of thing. You have to take the risks of letting more people through initially if you're going to reap the benefits," he says.

[ Related story: How gender-neutral job postings decrease time to hire ]

Shift your thinking

That starts with understanding that a 180-degree shift in mindset needs to happen, and that what traditionally was seen as risky may be anything but, says Tami Golan, senior vice president of HR for visual communications solutions company Vidyo.

"From an HR perspective, not looking 'outside the box' is the real risk. We live in a global, distributed, diverse economy where there's a shortage of skills and a shortage of skilled professionals -- diversity is critical for sound decision making, and if you're not investing time and energy into hiring outside one particular demographic, you risk turning off the majority of your customer base," Golan says.

That's really the key, says Golan; making sure that your workforce is representative of your customer base to help ensure your products and services are actually appropriate for the customers you're trying to serve.

"Creativity and innovation start with understanding the world and the people we serve. You have to first represent within the people you're trying to connect with, or else you won't be able to bring the right products, services, solutions to market," Golan says.

And while it may be more difficult, it's not impossible to make these changes at scale, says John Staup, vice president, enterprise talent strategies at telecommunications services provider West Corporation. The 30-year-old corporation took a look at itself about five years ago and realized it had to start pivoting to better understand and represent their diverse customer base, Staup says.

"We understand that, at our size and scale, it can be tough to be nimble, to innovate and be on the cutting-edge of technology. But we also realized that it starts with the people we're hiring. We had a lot of the 'same' types of people here that represented only a small fraction of the users we were touching, so we had to commit to making our workforce look like, act like and think like the very diverse customer demographics," Staup says.

[ Related story: How to improve your odds of landing great talent ]

Cultural transformation

Such a massive cultural transformation can seem daunting, to say the least, but Staup says West started by educating and upskilling existing management and worked to fill vacant leadership roles with more diverse candidates.

"We also took our existing, traditional management framework and showed people how they could be more flexible; helped them learn about different social and cultural norms, stressed the importance of accommodating different working styles and personality types to account for the diversity we wanted to achieve," Staup says.

West Corp. also changed its approach to searching for talent by integrating marketing techniques and social media savvy to help attract candidates, he says, including using social media analytics to gauge how and when to position job ads in front of potential applicants, Staup says.

"The traditional HR and recruiting models were based on what we jokingly say is the 'post-and-pray' mentality. Post your role on a big job board or two, sort through whoever happens to come through the funnel and assume that's going to bring you what you want. That's not good enough, anymore," he says.

Now, with the addition of more marketing-focused HR and recruiting pros, West has gotten much more targeted in its searches for talent, and is looking at the bigger strategic picture when filling roles so that hires won't just be a "butt in the seat," they'll actively have a growth and career path that aligns with the strategic goals and mission of the company, Staup says.

The interviewing process has shifted, too; Staup says implementing behavioral interview techniques have helped find candidates who are diverse in thought, with excellent problem-solving, interpersonal and communication skills as well as leadership potential.

Finally, removing the dreaded "time to fill" metric from HR and recruiting's key performance indicator (KPI) eases the deadline pressure and helps mitigate that risk of bad hires in the first place, Staup says.

"Time to fill is not one of our KPIs anymore, because that honestly felt like pressuring people to make bad decisions in the interest of speed. Yeah, maybe we had a butt in the seat quickly, but we had no idea until it was too late if that was a bad decision," he says.

The payoff

While there's still work to be done, Staup says he's certain that these "risks" have paid off in a big way for West Corp.

"There's no denying because of these changes we've been able to attract a higher caliber of talent for the organization. And while our reputation as a workplace of choice wasn't one of the key drivers of this, it's definitely been a great byproduct to see that from a public perspective, people are excited about what we're doing as a company. So, honestly, these aren't risks at all -- this is us playing it safe," he says.

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