How We Worked on Eliminating Bias in Our Hiring Process: A Small Organization's Story
byon June 20, 2019
We recently hired our newest employee at Conservancy, a Technical Bookkeeper. Adding one more employee to our small staff is a significant change for our organization and we wanted to conduct both an efficient and as unbiased as possible hiring process. This can be a challenge for small organizations and there must be agreement around this goal as well as a willingness to stick to a slightly more formal process. Everyone here at Conservancy was committed to crafting a process designed to remove as much bias as possible from the equation, so here's what we did.
Posting the Job
This is the posting that we shared with our networks. We specifically never implied that we expected applicants of any particular age or gender. We weren't looking for any particular type of educational history, so there's no mention of schooling here. In fact, we proactively stated that we were open to applicants from all different backgrounds. Since it's an unusual role, we were willing to train applicants who had a non-complete mix of the skills the job would use and we said so. Finally, we strongly encouraged folks from under-represented groups to apply -- not as a short-hand CYA, "EOE!" but in a specific way that we hope conveyed our belief that diversity is critical for our organization and our mission. We were so happy to be overwhelmed by strong applications from over thirty people who are passionate about software freedom.
First off, we asked all of the applicants the same questions, which we fully formulated in advance. It's important that you don't compare apples to oranges and keep the interview about the skills and qualities needed for the role you are currently interviewing for. For this first stage, no one on staff screened anyone they already knew well. We made an effort to stay on topic so we wouldn't be tempted to bias for "chattiness" or "culture fit." We also did not look at candidates on social media, in order to keep appearance, race and age from informing our first impression.
After the screen, we let all candidates know one way or the other whether we would be advancing their candidacy. Timely communication and a reasonably quick-paced process was part of our overall goal. While we didn't move as fast as we would have liked over the whole process due to our small size and large workload, we made sure to notify our candidates as soon as we knew whether they were advancing or not. A slow process increases the chance that your best applicants will have taken another job by the time you get back to them and there's absolutely no need to string people along that you don't intend to hire. The screen reduced the field to 12 candidates we were really excited to move forward with.
Since this opening was for a technical role, we needed to know about people's technical skills. We wanted to make sure we understood where our candidates were technically, without making assumptions about the experiences on their resumes. To do this, we organized a do-at-home exercise with a time constraint. There was no whiteboard and no audience while the work was being done by each applicant on their own machine. We told applicants they could look things up, because that is what people do when they are on the job. (They know there's a tool or library that could help them, but they don't quite remember the name of it or what the exact argument is that will help in a particular situation.) We allowed applicants to choose a time slot over a two week period to take the test, so they could schedule the exercise around current work or care-giving responsibilities.
Bias is unconscious. While we try to be good, unbiased people, Conservancy staff has all been subtly and not so subtly exposed to racist, sexist and ageist ideas and defaults throughout our lives. The staff members who sent the technical exercise to the applicants gave each person a two letter code name. We wanted the other two staff members who rated each applicant's answers to be able to do so without any information about age, gender, race or national origin interfering with their assessments. This process allowed us to identify our four top candidates, based entirely on their anonymous work product.
For the final candidates, we wanted to schedule a longer interview. Again, we asked all of the final applicants the same questions. We tried not to let the conversation drift into personal anecdotes or irrelevant topics. We also worked to make sure the applicants had an accurate picture of the day to day tasks they would be doing and asked questions about how they would handle that work and the obstacles that are likely to come up during a typical work week in that role. We contacted the candidates' references and also asked all of them the same set of questions. We interviewed some amazing people for the role. The final interviews set up a very tough decision for us and the process strengthened our shared desire to continue expanding Conservancy's staff.
At the end of the day, we were only hiring for one opening and so we chose the best person for our current role. In the future, we might have multiple or complimentary openings that we'd have to jostle, but not today. We're very happy with the result -- welcome aboard Rosanne!
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