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I fundamentally believe good hiring practices are inclusive by design. The amount of extra effort you’re putting into being more inclusive is just an indicator of how far from good practice you really are.

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I recently wrapped up a round of hiring for a client of mine, and I thought I’d share some lessons learned and re-learned along the way.

The start of the funnel

For this particular client, it had been at least a year since they had done any recruiting or hiring, so I was basically setting up their funnel from scratch. Working with the CEO and engineers, I developed the hiring plan – detailing the shape of the candidate we were looking for; establishing the core competencies we wanted to explore with candidates; and defining the interview loops. I then wrote the job description and facilitated working sessions where we developed our interview questions and created rubrics for each section of the interview loop. I also ran our interview process retros. As we started running candidates through the process, we scheduled time to reflect on what was and wasn’t working, and come up with some tweaks for the next set of interviews. Over the course of two months (not including time spent in actual interviews, debriefs and resume review), I invested about 20 hours into just these efforts, with various other team members spending additional time here as well. 

We didn’t have to wait until all these steps were solidified before we started building our hiring funnel. In fact, once our job descriptions were written and approved, I started getting eyeballs on them. The first outlet I tried was a number of community Slack groups that I’m a part of. These include online tech communities and various conferences I’ve spoken at (including LeadDev). I did this for a few reasons. First, it’s very low friction. Posting to Slack groups is free and doesn’t require filling out forms or waiting for approvals. Second, from an acceptance test standpoint, it was a low-key way to verify that what we had written would actually appeal to the candidates we were looking for. 

A block in the funnel

As an acceptance test, posting to these Slack channels was a success. We immediately started seeing applications come through that matched the shape of the person we were looking for. I felt pretty relieved about that. However, as I started working my way through resumes, a familiar theme appeared. Despite posting to a number of Slack channels specifically geared toward underrepresented groups (URGs), the audience size of those groups was dwarfed by the size of the broader tech community Slack channels I had posted to. The vast majority of applicants were all male, almost all White. In fact, the first five folks we ran through our process were all men and only one BIPoC. 

There were a few problems with this outcome. The obvious one was that my responsibility as a recruiter was to get as many qualified people into the funnel as I could and having a mostly White, male candidate pool meant I wasn’t reaching a broad enough audience.

Another problem was a bit more subtle. There’s a thing that happens as our mental model of recruiting meets the real world. Many of us imagine recruiting as a talent show where candidates parade their skill and expertise in front of us and we get to choose the person who puts on the best show or stands out as “the best and brightest”. And certainly, there are versions of recruiting that emulate that setup. But most of us don’t have that luxury. We have time constraints. We need to hire someone yesterday while taking up as little of the engineer’s time as we can get away with so as not to compromise our roadmaps. This sets up a situation that’s more akin to a staggered-start obstacle course race than a talent showcase. Candidates get to start the race on a first-come, first-served basis and whoever can overcome all the obstacles in our interview and cross the finish line first, wins. In this version of recruiting, there is often an advantage to being in the first run. In other words, by not being mindful of where I ran my acceptance test, I had inadvertently given advantage to the status quo.

Clearly, if I wanted to give URGs a fair shot, I needed to diversify our candidate pool, and quickly. There were already candidates in the process who had a head start on everyone else. Additionally, research shows that if you only have one URG in your candidate pool, the odds of hiring a URG are next to none. So, I needed to find a lot more candidates from URGs.

Fixing the funnel 

It turns out that one of the great things about the last five years is that there now exists a multitude of self-identifying talent pools and affinity groups, and I’m here to tell you that some of them work remarkably well. I ended up posting on job boards that were geared specifically for women, people of color, LGBTQ+ populations, and Latinx in tech. I also reached out to a veterans group who were super great, but skewed more toward early career changers. The results were stark. The gender makeup of our candidate pool evened out within a week. We also started seeing a higher calibre of candidates, with folks getting further into our interview process and scoring higher on our rubrics. 

As an aside, creating a more gender-balanced candidate pool did not take a lot of extra time or money. The job boards I ended up going with cost $150 to $200 per post and I spent about four hours researching and posting. 

While we made significant strides in the gender balance of our candidate pool, we only saw a small lift in BIPoC candidates. I tried to bolster those numbers by doing a round of outbound recruiting, but this is a much longer game with a generally low yield, and I ran out of time before those efforts could produce results.

Conclusion 

Ultimately, what I learned was that in equitable and inclusive hiring, timing matters. It’s better to start out with a diverse hiring pool from the outset rather than needing to play catch-up. For most of us, the folks we get the word out to first are going to have an advantage, and in the future, I need to be more mindful of this and how I initiate my recruiting funnel.