21 Mar

How to hire for an inclusive work environment

Years ago, I went through a technical interview that left scars that have never fully healed. I was invited to apply by a friend who was familiar with my background (self-taught coder with a journalism degree) and my work (a fair amount of code mixed in with a lot of “soft skills”). He talked about the technical interview as though it were a formality.

And then I met the team.

I spent four hours being grilled on questions that are probably common fare for second year computer science students, but had nothing to do with my work or my experience. So many thoughts went through my head: “I’m an idiot.” “I’m a total fraud.” “I’m not a real developer.” “How do I get the hell out of here?” “WTF was my friend thinking?” “I will never, ever recommend interviewing with this company to anyone ever.”

What just happened?

Based on every job I’ve had before and since, I’m not an idiot or a fraud. I’m a great employee, a solid coder, and a fast learner, but that employer will never know that. They lost out on a great potential employee, and I lost a lot of sleep as I struggled to remember my strengths.

When I heard Tara Hernandez speak about how common hiring practices can exclude great employees from the workforce, it struck a chord. Her presentation should be required reading for anyone who will be hiring soon.

Tara is the Director of Systems Engineering at Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life. She presented “Yes I Have Ovaries, (and other great moments towards building an inclusive work environment)”at Connect 2016, the Women Who Code conference in Seattle. Tara is brilliant, hilarious, and gracious enough to share a slide deck with the full script of her talk.

Here are a few key takeaways:

Write job descriptions that attract the kind of candidates you want. Descriptions like “must be an expert in <insert>” and “fearless leader” may not get you many team players, and will discourage candidates who are well qualified but less confident. Replace “Wanted – A Rock Star” with “Wanted — A Great Team Member.”

Ask interview questions that invite conversation instead of trying to stump candidates. From Tara: “I knew one engineer that held it as a point of honor that nobody ever passed his technical questions. Even if you believe his claim that he thought he learned more by seeing how candidates handled failure, can you imagine being that person, especially if you’re a woman? The two most likely opinions people might hold after interviewing with this guy is 1) that they aren’t smart enough to work at that company, or 2) that he was a complete jerk and they under no circumstances want to work there. This is the opposite of inviting.”

Instead, use behavioral questions, like “Give me an example of how you dealt with a difficult person at your job,” or “Here’s a problem we’ve run into, how would you approach trying to solve this?”

Small changes can make a big difference in getting more diverse candidates to apply and showing them that the work environment will be welcoming if they decide to take the job. Let’s make sure the way we’re introducing candidates to our organizations reflects who we want to hire and how we want to represent ourselves.

Laura Meerkatz is a Force.com Developer for the Enterprise Systems team at Salesforce.org and a member of the Girlforce Leadership Team.