The Thread

Counting Heads: Lessons in Hiring a Diverse Staff

Article In The Thread
May 4, 2021

The first time I intentionally thought about adding diverse voices to a conversation, I was planning a music business and tech policy conference 10 years ago. And even then, the thought wasn't one of my own—one of my colleagues suggested during our initial planning that we institute a rule that every panel had to have one speaker who wasn’t a "white guy." We all agreed that this was a great idea and moved on to the next item on the agenda. I definitely supported diversifying our conference, and as the person planning the whole shindig it also became my job to remind people of the rule and hold us accountable to our commitment. In other words, it was my job to count heads.

At the time, our rule felt like a token gesture—and it was. But even meeting our relatively low bar wasn’t easy. The challenges included our own network bias, and the fact that the usual experts we’d invite to speak on, for example, the pros and cons of business models for streaming music, all happened to be white men. Or, representation simply took a backseat to revenue when our tiny nonprofit was able to confirm two marquee white men for a fireside chat, because they would sell tickets and draw press.

In hindsight, we did not have to make these tradeoffs. But it seemed so at the time because we weren’t equipped to go beyond counting heads. While we succeeded in diversifying our panels more often than not, we didn’t yet value the presence of diverse voices as a worthy goal in its own right. Thankfully, so much has changed since then. Many more people are talking about the value of diverse voices in public conversations, both as a part of an overdue reckoning with a lack of diversity, and as a business case. People are proactively addressing those biases I saw over a decade ago through no-“manel” policies, pledges by white guys to not participate in manels, lists of diverse speakers in male-dominated fields, and by seeing a conversation with diverse voices as valuable in broadening our understanding. Beyond representation on event panels, organizations are also looking inward, asking hard questions about how they can increase representation of diverse voices on their own staff—helping to change the lack of diversity in many industries that created so many white male-dominated conversations in the first place.

In my current role as chief of staff at New America’s Open Technology Institute, I’m responsible for hiring. Over the last five years, I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to reach a more diverse pool of applicants, how to ensure they get an unbiased review once they apply, and generally how to make our hiring process more applicant-friendly and fair.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned for hiring diverse candidates that could apply to any industry:

  1. Simplify and clarify job postings—it’s better for everyone. Simple fixes we implemented included eliminating jargon, acronyms, and gendered language, dividing qualifications between required and preferred, giving candidates a chance to meet requirements through professional experience instead of a college or advanced degree, including travel requirements (when not in pandemic times), and including mobility requirements. For more junior positions, we found that adding a sentence or two describing the day-to-day work of the position, or what the person in the job would be doing in one, three, and six months, could broaden the appeal of the posting.
  2. Add salary information to job postings. It’s a hard improvement to make, but it’s worth it. This addition is practical because it ensures you don’t get to the end of a hiring process only to find someone wanted to make much more money than you could afford to pay. Adding salary information also lessens the chance that negotiation strategy (or lack thereof), salary history, gender, race, ethnicity, or other unconscious bias would affect the salary offer we make someone.

    The real challenge of implementing this change was its impact on our current staff. Every job posting could potentially result in a conversation comparing the salary for the new position to how much the employee made. Practically speaking, once you decide your goal is no longer to pay someone as little as possible for a job, and instead to set salaries equitably and in a way that can be justified, that means your existing salaries also have to be justifiable. Through above-standard annual pay increases, as well as attrition, we started to reset salaries. We gave larger annual increases to the lowest paid staff members to acknowledge that a small cost-of-living-adjustment on lower salaries doesn't amount to much. And, yes, we had difficult conversations with existing staff as a result of salaries included in job postings. Ultimately, I think the increased transparency has built trust between staff and leadership, helped morale and retention, and held us accountable to our ideals and our goals.
  3. Invest dedicated effort into reaching a diverse pool of candidates, and candidates outside of your network bubbles. We started by making sure we were sending postings to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and affinity groups at universities and professional associations, giving current staff tweets to retweet, asking interns and new hires where they looked for new positions, and making sure we were reaching recent staff with job openings. But, as in music conferences, network bias is real in hiring as well, and the challenge was reaching outside our bubble. Towards that effort we’ve started a nomination process and diversity referral bonus, and are trying to attend a job fair or two every year, whether we’re hiring or not, to expand our network.
  4. Rethink applicant screening to reduce unconscious bias. A lot of the changes we made to our hiring process were around division of labor. For example, one person could read all the applications using the position's minimum qualifications as metrics, and then a hiring manager could review only those applications that met those qualifications. Another method is to have two people review all the applications against the minimum qualifications and then compare their top candidates. We experimented with anonymizing applications by hand (redacting names, colleges, hometowns, employers) and found that reading applications became much easier, since you could focus solely on the candidate’s qualifications. However, hand-redacting resumes is time-consuming, and since our recruiting software doesn’t have this feature, we haven’t implemented this step permanently. We also standardized lists of interview questions as much as possible so that we could make direct comparisons between candidates later. Instituting processes like these have helped ensure everyone gets a fair shot.
  5. Train your staff on how to read resumes and interview. After watching staff read resumes and conduct interviews, I realized that we needed to give them guidance and set ground rules. Did they know what application requirements were deal-breakers and which weren’t? Did they know how to ask interview questions that elicit more than yes/no answers? Did they know how to objectively evaluate candidates? Without training, employees might not recommend the right candidates, which would be a waste of time. At worse, they might inadvertently make biased decisions that undermine our efforts at hiring a diverse workforce. To make sure we’re evaluating candidates fairly and by the same metrics, I make a point of sitting down with staff reading resumes for the first time to practice reading resumes and talking through what applicants did well or not so well. I sit down with people interviewing for the first time to make sure they’ve thought about what questions are relevant to ask, and make sure they understand what questions are illegal or not useful to ask. Reading resumes and interviewing are skills, and it’s good to spend time talking about how to do them well. Your human resources department should be able to help you with training and resources like these.
  6. Set goals and track your data. To make these changes, we used metrics and accountability and goals, and counting was key to these. What was the demographic make-up of our staff? How did it break down by seniority? Who was applying to our job openings, and (to the degree that candidates shared) what were their demographic data? What were the demographic data of those we advanced from one stage of the hiring process to the next? How did these applicants find us? At first, we implemented a Rooney rule to ensure that women or underrepresented minorities were considered for every open position. Since then, we’ve tried to raise the bar further by ensuring that there’s both a woman and underrepresented minority person in a final candidate pool, since that greatly increases the chances of our hiring one of them.

After all that however, I can tell you that while counting is a starting point, it’s not enough. If your goal is to increase diversity in your workforce, you have to know how diversity in staffing helps your company or organization be better at what it does. If you’re reading this, then this last point may be the most difficult to address, but it’s also the most crucial. Diversity for its own sake is important for all sorts of reasons. But it’s hard to maintain momentum on diversity in hiring initiatives, and even harder to retain staff who care about working with a diverse team if your efforts aren’t grounded in knowing why you care about having that diverse team. For us, we know that technological disruption, online discrimination, and the digital divide disproportionately affect the most systemically or historically marginalized communities in society, and we’re committed to centering the needs of these communities in our work. That's why we want employees from a diverse array of backgrounds to work on our mission. Still, even with all the progress my team has made and the measures we’ve implemented, I'll be the first to acknowledge that we still have a very long way to go.

Being able to answer the question of “why?” turns a diverse workplace from a “nice-when-we-have-time” into a “must-have.” And the answer to that question drives the effort to do better, and ultimately, justifies all the counting that’s necessary en route to a more diverse and equitable workplace and world.

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