A company’s credibility when it comes to anti-racism is really only as strong as its results. In the second half of 2020, myriad companies in the U.S. made public pledges against racism, among them the most recognizable names in tech: Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Google, and YouTube. But for companies to make good on these promises within their organizations, the commitments need to be backed by concrete and measurable changes.
Tech companies have long failed to increase Black and Latinx representation in their workforces. In 2020, economics scholar Bhaskar Chakravorti wrote in Harvard Business Review, “Tech companies have made similar promises before, but have had little success in following through.” He points out that between 2014 and 2018, Google hardly moved the needle on increasing representation of non-white employees in its workforce. And while both Apple and Amazon increased representation of Black and Latinx employees, the new hires tended to be in low-paying retail and warehouse jobs, not in tech roles.
What can be done to bring better outcomes? In a From Day One webinar, “How to Be Anti-racist in Your Tech Hiring,” five leaders in tech-talent acquisition discussed how they’re battling racism in their hiring practices, from recruitment to interviewing to employee retention.
Anti-racist hiring practices begin with keeping your recruitment pipeline rich with what Ivori Johnson, senior manager of diversity-recruiting programs at online mortgage lender Better.com, called “underestimated talent.”
This means breaking the habit of sourcing candidates only from existing networks, brand-name schools, and tech hubs like San Francisco and New York City–a pattern that contributes to the racial homogeneity of workplaces and whole industries.
Panel moderator and Fast Company contributing editor Lydia Dishman put it bluntly: “The pipeline problem is a myth,” and pointed specifically to the fact that a prospective employee’s location isn’t the barrier it used to be, especially in tech. “[Last year] there was a reevaluation of where talent can be because we all started working remotely, so you don’t need to find somebody in your backyard.”
Mikaela Smith, global director of executive search and leadership recruiting at Slack, added this: “Talent doesn’t discriminate. Talent doesn’t necessarily go to Ivy League schools, talent doesn't have a color or a gender.”
Talent also doesn’t necessarily have an age or experience level. Johnson cautioned against focusing efforts to hire people of color only in entry-level roles and ignoring higher levels of leadership and the C-suite. Equitable recruiting must occur at all levels.
In the hiring process, before the job interview comes the resume review. Portia Kibble Smith, who heads diversity, equity and inclusion at Karat, a company that conducts technical interviews on behalf of companies hiring software engineers, said traditional resumes can be another barrier for people of color. “What we don’t worry about is a resume,” she said. “We don’t even look at the resumes. We just want to know: Are they able to code? It doesn’t matter what school they go to, how many years of experience they’ve had. The bottom line is, Can you code? That way it doesn’t matter whether they went to a Stanford or a Spelman. We want to cut out all of that bias.”
To mitigate racial bias in interviewing, panelists recommended training hiring managers to evaluate candidates on job competency, not a nebulous notion of “culture fit.” Instead, candidates should be measured against an objective job-competency rubric. “Competency-based interviewing, I think, is key,” Slack’s Smith said. “Really getting clear about what you’re looking for from a competencies perspective, as opposed to people going with their gut, their feelings, someone they relate to.”
The litmus test of “would I want to have a beer with this person?” fails because that approach is not about finding the candidate most capable of doing the job, it's about finding the candidate most likely to be your buddy. This is why cloud-communications platform Twilio takes an altogether different approach.
“At Twilio we have the Bar Raiser program,” said Stephanie Alofoje, the company’s director of global employer brand and recruitment marketing. “It’s a way to mitigate bias in the hiring process by having a neutral interviewer. We banned the term ‘culture fit.’ I don’t care if you want to drink beer after work. So we have a neutral interviewer on the panel. That person is not on your team. The role of that person is to pulse you on your company values.”
Cat Miller, VP of engineering at Flatiron Health, said failing to train managers to conduct unbiased interviews is how you get inconsistency across your organization. Everyone must commit to equity in hiring, she said. Miller creates comprehensive interview kits that detail exactly what competencies the role requires, what questions hiring managers can ask to test those competencies, and exactly what a good answer looks like.
Just as you can train your hiring managers to conduct equitable and anti-racist interviews, you can train your talent pipeline to succeed in your interview process.
Karat has been forceful in its efforts to foster racial equity in tech hiring. The company pledged $1 million to help Black software engineers with the technical interview process, and this month launched Brilliant Black Minds, a program to improve access, fairness and inclusion across the technology industry. The program is “centered around closing the access gap for technical hiring,” Karat’s Smith said. “We find that many of our underrepresented minority students don’t have the skills they need in order to even pass the first interview. So if they’re not going to pass the first interview, they’re not going to get the second interview, nor will they get the job.”
Smith has seen the difference this practice can make. Program participants who’ve struggled to clear the first round of interviews have attended the Karat bootcamp and then went on to land their dream jobs in tech.
Alofoje characterized this as the difference between strategy and reality. You can expand your pipeline to underestimated talent pools by recruiting candidates outside the Ivy League schools and outside tech cities, but if those candidates aren’t getting all the way through your interview process, what’s the point? Your anti-racist hiring practices have a gap that needs to be filled.
Even though the discussion centered on the hiring process, participants talked about other anti-racist policies and programs in their current organizations. After all, what good are anti-racist hiring practices if your company culture isn’t anti-racist too?
“Clean your house before you invite people in for a party,” Slack’s Smith said. “You can recruit people all day long, but if you don’t have an inclusive work environment, you’re literally just training them to go somewhere else.” Panelists emphasized the importance of committing to anti-racism at all levels of an organization, especially at the leadership level. And companies have to persevere, because results don’t necessarily happen overnight.
Said Miller: “I've been the engineer responsible for software-engineer hiring for about the past four years, including during a major, hyper-growth phase, which is when we started working with Karat to help us succeed at that. For the past two years, we've been quite focused on diverse recruiting efforts, both women and underrepresented minorities. And we're just really honestly starting to see the results of that in the past six to nine months.”
Indeed, don’t lose sight of the long game. Pay attention to patterns. Observe and measure how your anti-racist hiring policies affect the makeup of your workforce, the speakers said. And if those policies aren’t making a difference, do something.
Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.