by Sharon Florentine

How to diversify your IT hiring pipeline

Oct 20, 2015
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

Improving diversity at your tech company starts with diversifying how you build your hiring pipeline. From Grace Hopper 2015, experts share their tips for improving diversity at every step in the process: from writing job descriptions to sourcing, recruiting and screening candidates.

Frustrated by the lack of diversity at your tech company or by the lack of women and underrepresented minority applicants? At the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology, last week in Houston, several experts shared tips on how to address the issue, emphasizing that successful diversity strategies start by making sure every step in your hiring process is consistent with that goal. That starts with identifying where in your hiring process the problem is occurring.

Identify the problem

Many IT companies know they have a diversity problem, but they don’t necessarily know why or where, says Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO of Paradigm, a data analytics firm that helps companies implement diversity strategies. The first place to look is at the data generated by applicant tracking systems, since that can show you where in the process you’re losing women and underrepresented candidates, Emerson says.

“You have to solve the right problem. A company came to us a few months ago and wanted to anonymize the resumes of all their candidates — they’d heard this was a great strategy for increasing diversity. The problem was, they hadn’t done any research to find out if this was actually the problem they were having. What we discovered, looking at their data, was that at the resume review stage, there wasn’t a measurable disparity along gender or ethnicity lines; in fact, those were happening at the phone screening and the on-site interview process. That’s what we had to fix – anonymizing resumes wouldn’t have done anything,” Emerson says.

[ Related Story: Women celebrate ‘Our time to lead’ at Grace Hopper event ]

Sourcing solutions

You also have to consider from where you’re sourcing candidates, and examine why those sources are chosen, says Mimi Fox-Melton, director of program development and implementation at Code2040, a nonprofit that aims to create opportunities for Blacks and Latino in the IT industry. Fox-Melton is also executive director of Code for Progress, a fellowship program for women and people of color that trains future IT leaders.

“At Code2040, we started out sourcing from top-tier schools because we assumed that’s where we’d find only the cream of the crop. But what we found was that talent from other, less-well-known school was just as elite. Now the students we’re sourcing come from anywhere and everywhere. We’re implementing a school-blind process,” she says.

Many organizations hire through referrals from current employees which, unless it’s done right, can actually work against an organization’s diversity and inclusion goals, says Kieran Snyder, co-founder and CEO at Textio, a natural language processing and data analytics firm that helps companies optimize their job listings.

“From our clients, we know that many of them have a percentage of hires from referrals that’s over 50 percent. But if you’re already looking at a big disparity in your workforce — if 80 percent of those referrals are white men or Asian men, then there’s your problem,” Snyder says.

One way to address this is to specifically ask your existing talent to go through their networks more thoughtfully, says Michelle McHargue, talent partner with Cowboy Ventures, a venture capital firm that focuses on startups. Admittedly, McHarque says, it’s sometimes easier for the companies she works with since they’re still in the seed stage and can actively plan for and integrate diversity from the start, without having to undo bad habits that exist in older, more established organizations.

“We do what we call ‘sourcing jams.’ We ask everyone to go through their networks and instead of recommending someone who’s like them, find women and candidates from underrepresented groups to put forward. We’re asking folks to delve into potential candidate pools they’d not considered,” McHarque says.

And make sure this step is done at the beginning of the sourcing process, McHarque adds. You don’t want to start with a large, homogeneous group of candidates and then suddenly introduce women and minority candidates toward the end, when they’d be at a disadvantage, she says.

[ Related Story: How to beat applicant tracking systems ]

Watch your language

Writing a job description is usually a dreaded chore, and most organizations want to take the path of least resistance; that means copying and pasting from competitors, from templates and from previous internal role descriptions without much thought toward how candidates will perceive these, says Textio’s Snyder.

“From our data, we know that there are so many unconscious signifiers in job descriptions, and women and minority candidates are so much more sensitive to the nuances of language. For example, we know that if more than 50 percent of your job description content is presented as a bulleted list, the number of women who’ll apply plummets. If it’s less than 25 percent, the number of men applicants plummets. Neither scenario is good,” she says.

Snyder adds that specific terms like “rock star,” “ninja” and “badass” are shown to discourage women from applying. Those are fairly obvious. But other linguistic signals are more subtle.

“If you’re looking for someone to ‘manage’ a team, you’ll attract more men. If you say you want to ‘build’ a team, more women will apply. But if you say you want someone to ‘lead’ a team, you’ll get about half men and half women. The language you use is extremely important,” Snyder says.

Other language to avoid: military and sports analogies, which tend to turn off any applicant for whom those comparisons don’t resonate — and that’s a lot of them, Snyder says.

“How many times do you use ‘mission critical’ in your job descriptions, or ‘leave it all on the field’? That’s automatically going to exclude a whole bunch of people who aren’t interested in what those imply. Not to mention that they’re clichéd. Your candidates are going to roll their eyes and you’ll lose them,” she says.

Textio’s data also shows that one of the most significant indicators that a company’s hiring process is biased is use of the word ‘Nerf’, and the word ‘synergy’ is a huge red flag for a generally toxic workplace.

Finally, Snyder says, always include an Equal Opportunity Employment statement, but make sure it’s a personally crafted statement, not a regurgitation of the old standard. “Make it sincere, thoughtful, honest and unique. You need to state that you’re open to all groups, that you value variation in thought, background, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, experience and education, and you need to write it yourself,” she says.

[ Related Story: How unconscious bias impacts IT hiring and recruiting ]

The culture conundrum

While most companies have good intentions when they emphasize the need for a cultural fit, that strategy can backfire, especially when it comes to increasing diversity in the hiring process.

“The problem with asking someone to be a culture fit is that unconsciously it means someone else who looks and acts exactly like who and what’s already at the company. I think the term is problematic, but it’s tough to know what to replace that with. We like to use ‘culture add’ — to stress that you’re going to add value, insight and perspective to your teams, and gain something you’re missing,” says Emerson.

Culture fit is sometimes a panacea for organizations that don’t consider the value that differences of opinion and perspective can bring to the table, says Caroline Simard, research director at the Clayman Institute for Gender Studies at Stanford University.

“Don’t be afraid of conflict. You’re not hiring for everyone to get along — innovation happens when there’s conflict. You want inclusion, yes, but you want it not just for its own sake, but to leverage different ideas, different work styles, different backgrounds and opinions,” Simard says.

Technical screening

Finally, when you’re hiring for IT roles, a technical screening seems like the last place bias and discrimination can occur — most organizations feel this is one area where candidates are strictly judged on competency and merit. But even here, unconscious bias and a tendency toward reducing time to hire can negatively impact women and people of color, Simard says.

“There is no situation in this process more prone to unconscious bias than in tech screenings. Part of that problem is companies need to move fast to hire talent, so they fall back on stereotypes and unconscious bias comes into play. We’ve discovered that, even in a process that’s supposed to focus only on tech skills that women and minorities are often penalized for things like ‘communication skills’ and ‘leadership skills,’ which shouldn’t have a place in a strictly technical assessment,” Simard says.

Make sure that if your hiring team has any reservations about a candidates’ communication, leadership and/or collaboration skills, that those are assessed separately from a technical screening, she says.

Typical ways of performing tech screenings are also detrimental to women and people of color in the hiring process, Textio’s Snyder adds. A lot of companies are still doing tech screens using a whiteboard, and Snyder’s data shows this is an area where women, in particular, don’t perform at the same level as men.

“Women perform at the same technical competency level as men when they’re given technical assessments on a computer. But they score significantly lower when problem-solving challenges are given on a whiteboard. Not only that, but for the most part these are not real-world scenarios. Why would you ask a candidate to perform a task that has no bearing on what they’d actually be doing in the workplace? These tend to disproportionately exclude women and minority candidates,” Snyder says.