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Inclusion Interviewing

In setting out to create an inclusive environment, it helps to stop letting in folks who would work against that goal. I wanted to talk a bit about my experiences in implementing an inclusion section in our interview process. This is more of a reflection piece. I don’t think I gathered enough data points to draw any conclusions, but thought it would be useful to share some of this journey.

We decided to add an inclusion section to our interview based on the principle that our interview process should align closely with our values. Values-based interviewing is a good idea for all sorts of reasons which will probably be the topic of a future blog post, but having written D&I into our engineering values, we were motivated to figure out how we could live up to that value. After kicking around the idea for a little bit, what finally spurred us to action was a twitter conversation on the topic.

Getting started, the first hurdle was deciding what questions to ask. We wanted to incorporate this into the behavioral interview slot where we focus on understanding the candidate’s experiences with teamwork and collaboration. That slot was 45 minutes long and we resolved to spend a third of the time on inclusion. So we needed a question that could spark a good 15 minute conversation.

At the time, the Google manifesto was in the news, as well as Binary Capital and 500 Startups, so we thought asking about current events would give us plenty of surface area to explore. This initial foray didn’t turn out so well. We found that candidates would dead-end if they didn’t subscribe to this particular news stream. And while it was easy to take signal from that, it closed us off to the possibility that one could be unaware of these events and still have a history of or desire to support and stand up for their colleagues.

For our next iteration, we used “how have/would you contribute to a diverse and inclusive environment?” With this question, we had space to maneuver.  If a candidate had experience or knowledge in the area we could talk about ways in which they identified situations and behaviors or how they extended their privilege to help others. If the candidate wasn’t familiar in the space, we could explore how they might learn about the topic or other ways in which they were practicing inclusive behaviors but not necessarily aware of it.

I will admit that I only got to see this over a small sample size of about 15 candidates. But even in that small sample, we got a wide range of responses–some of which were easy to assess and some not so easy. There was definitely a sense of surprise from our candidates. And, sadly, the majority of our male candidates had not spent much time thinking about the topic.

Of the folks who went through the process, no one was hostile to the question. We definitely got a couple of responses that took the shape of “I’m a white male, so I don’t know how I can help,” but overall, folks seemed willing to engage and work through the question.

Being very loose with the numbers, I’d say about two-thirds of our candidates knew very little about inclusion, the D&I landscape, or how they could contribute to making things better. About one fifth were very knowledgeable and actively participating in supporting URMs in some form—whether it was exhibiting ally behaviors, working on inclusive product features, or campaigning for change within their companies—and the small remainder were in a gray area of being curious but not proactive.

The most common phrase that came up was “I see everyone as equal”, which is a tough one to field because it comes from a view of equality, but neither recognizes the inequities nor appreciates the differences that contribute to a given individual’s situation. To restate the analogy: Consider two runners, one who races against a headwind, while the other runs in calm weather. They both average the same mile time, though the first is actively pushing against battering winds. Who’s better?

From an interviewer perspective, I’ll admit that it felt uncomfortable asking this question, partially because it was something new and partially because almost all things D&I are uncomfortable for me at the start. The most difficult part was staying neutral and remaining curious. These conversations tended to tug at my triggers, and resisting the urge to stop folks in their tracks and try to educate them was a challenge. I got through it by reminding myself that interviews are about learning as much as you can about your candidate, and that meant staying in conversation and listening mode. Sometimes this worked out. I definitely had some experiences where the interview started out with “I don’t know” and ended with “but I saw someone getting spoken over and being cut off and I intervened.” Other times, it didn’t.

When it came time to make a hiring decision, it took me a while to figure out how to weigh this section of the interview. We did not run into a conflict where someone who excited us technically had not thought about D&I in some way. Which was fortunate. Though I had put some thought into what I would do in that scenario.

Ultimately, I had to recognize that my job here wasn’t to save people. As a person who is passionate about learning and developing talent, I understood that where these candidates ended up next could mean the difference between them learning how to become allies or perpetuating the status quo. I knew that if they joined our organization, I could provide some of that guidance, but I had to ask myself whether our organization could underwrite more inclusion debt and, if we did, who would most likely be servicing it. The answers were that we could not and, of course, the URMs in my organization would be the ones having to bear the bulk of the burden, if we tried. For those reasons, we had to favor folks who had already proven themselves as strong advocates for inclusion.

Because we were experimenting, we didn’t make a broad announcement that we were tweaking our interview process, and that resulted in some surprise during interview debriefs where folks would learn for the first time what we were doing. Reactions internally also varied from “is that a fair question to ask?” to “I wouldn’t be able to answer that question.” This is where being grounded in your values and having a story of why you’re doing what you’re doing really helps. I think it ultimately worked in favor of our goals though, because, at the very least, it put out an indicator that there was an expectation to know about inclusion.

Interviewing for inclusion is largely unexplored territory, so I’m sure there are more ways to do this. In fact, Chelsea Troy recently wrote this great post that is far more encompassing and thoughtful than we were about it, and when I have a chance to implement an interview process again, I’ll definitely be keeping this in mind. As I mentioned at the top of this post, I don’t have any concrete conclusions from this experience other than, as an industry, we need to keep experimenting. I’m resolved on the notion that making inclusion part of our interview processes is healthy for our organizations and for tech in general, and if we can get enough folks to do it, our talent pool will adapt accordingly.

Published inD&IManagement
Copyright 2017 Jason Wong