6 important tips for interviewers looking to hire top talent from diverse backgrounds, according to HR and D&I leaders


While interviewing for brand manager roles, Norville Barrington remembered two instances when the interviewers' comments took him aback. In one, the interviewer told Barrington, who is black, that the company was making an exception by recruiting him. In the other, the interviewer began using slang and asked if Barrington had watched the latest "Love + Hip Hop," a reality TV series about hip-hop artists. He had not. 

Norville Barrington, director at a health insurance company and vice president of marketing communications for the Metro New York Chapter of the National Black MBA Association
Norville Barrington.
Norville Barrington

"I didn't go through with either opportunity," Barrington, now a director at a health insurance company and vice president of marketing communications for the Metro New York Chapter of the National Black MBA Association, told Business Insider. "The first opportunity wasn't the right environment for me. With the second opportunity, I pursued an option that was more aligned with my values."

But if that better opportunity hadn't come along, Barrington said he would have considered the second option, despite facing an uncomfortable interview.

Feeling slighted during an interview is not a new concept, and neither is overlooking insults to secure a position, many professionals and experts told Business Insider. But times are changing. The tight labor market has intensified the battle for top talent. Microaggression has entered the lexicon. Organizations spend about $8 billion on diversity training and recognize that diverse leadership leads to better overall performance. And people of all backgrounds are more connected than ever. 

Combined, experts said, these factors make it more likely for candidates who encounter bias to bow out. 

"Job seekers are evaluating the company as much as they're being evaluated," said Tony Lee, vice president of editorial for the Society for Human Resource Management. "If it becomes clear that a company's culture isn't a good fit, then they'll continue to look, especially in this job market." 

Despite the nearly $150 billion spent on staffing and recruiting and the emphasis on attracting diverse candidates, companies will continue to repel talent at times. 

"Most people want to do the right thing, but they might be N-B-C:  nice, but clueless," said Maureen Berkner Boyt, founder of The Moxie Exchange, which provides diversity, inclusion, and leadership training as well as digital solutions to companies. "Companies have to give them the tools to do the right thing. Unconscious bias is all too real, and we are not spending enough time making sure that people are qualified to interview candidates."

Maureen Berkner Boyt, founder of The Moxie Exchange
Maureen Berkner Boyt.
Maureen Berkner Boyt

Interviewing, they said, should be strategic to be most effective. There should be a clear plan and advanced training on how to avoid bias.

"We're now in a society where a lot of companies want diversity talent: black and brown, LGBTQ, able-bodied," said Netta Jenkins, vice president of global inclusion for Mosaic Group and Ask Applications, and the author of "Self-Advocacy & Confidence for a Fearless Career." "It's really important for organizations to see how we can retool [systems and processes] to make sure they are equitable. Organizations need to focus on systemic gaps versus aesthetic diversity."

Heide Gardner, senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Interpublic Group (IPG), a global provider of marketing solutions, said that getting through the interview is just the beginning. Employers need to address systemic factors to be competitive in hiring and in fostering inclusion for retention and advancement, she added. 

Heide Gardner, senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Interpublic Group
Heide Gardner.
IPG

That is why these topics were included in the Advancing Diversity Council meeting at CES 2020, said Gardner, an inductee of the 2018 Advancing Diversity Hall of Honors. 

These are six tips for before, during, and after the interview to have an equitable hiring process without perpetuating microaggressions.

1. Update your recruiting process to represent diversity — in materials and in person

Siri Chilazi, a gender and organizations researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School — Harvard's school of government, public policy, and public leadership — said that one important area to address is recruiting materials, starting with the job description.

Siri Chilazi, gender and organizations researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School
Siri Chilazi.
Siri Chilazi

Featuring people of diverse gender, race, age, or disability in recruiting materials and on the company website would be among additional updates required, as would using non-gendered language that reflects aspirations for diversity, Chilazi said.

"The specific words that you apply in your materials can turn some applicants on and off," she said. "For example, if you write that you're looking for an 'individualistic, aggressive coding ninja,' that will likely keep women from applying." 

Minda Harts, author of "The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table," said that during her recent book tour, she met many college students who asked about wearing their natural hair or shortening their name to seem less ethnic.

Minda Harts, author of “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table”
Minda Harts.
Minda Harts

"Unfortunately, they are greeted on the first day of their interview process with many [biases] before they have a chance to introduce themselves," Harts said. "It's hard to display a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion when your 'About Us' page doesn't reflect that." 

Harts also recommended that companies include interviewers of diverse backgrounds so candidates can see diversity reflected in the company early on.

Kate Byrne, president of Intentional Media, suggested instituting a buddy system for each candidate, similar to the way first-year students entering college are assigned an older student to guide them during orientation. Walking the company's halls, for example, would give a candidate a better sense than being in an interview room. 

Kate Byrne, president of Intentional Media
Kate Byrne.
Intentional Media

"To me, that is where you would get those real concerns out, when you get people in a more experiential setting," said Byrne. "But it has to be consistent with all candidates."

Chilazi said interviewers should also tell candidates about the company's formal interview process, however it is structured, to foster fairness. They can explain the steps and which parts will be evaluated or not so that everyone knows what to expect.

2. Form a strong hiring rubric that makes sense for each role

Ron Rapatalo, an executive search lead with Edgility Consulting, recommended an interview process that is structured and formalized. 

Ron Rapatalo, an executive search lead with Edgility Consulting
Ron Rapatalo.
Edgility Consulting

"You need a process to be able to say, 'Here's what we agreed on, here's what we'll hire for,'" Rapatalo said. "Whatever you see has to tie back to the hiring rubric."

At Edgility, a hiring committee of eight to 10 school leaders, teachers, and parents is part of the recruiting process for executive-level positions. Each interviewer undergoes equity and selection training, where they learn to assess a candidate's competency on each aspect of the rubric. That way, Rapatalo said, you're measuring candidates against qualifications, not each other.

Jenkins suggested that companies include a representative to screen for core values on a hiring committee. If diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a priority, for example, then DEI partners should be part of the interview process to get a sense of whether a candidate is truly committed to that value.

One team's lack of a criteria was one of two reasons that Karen Anglade, an entertainment company HR manager, turned down a job offer. She had completed two rounds of in-person interviews, one with a panel. She then received additional questions via email, to her surprise.

Karen Anglade, HR manager
Karen Anglade.
Karen Anglade

"It was clear they didn't know what they were looking for [in a candidate]," Anglade said. "If you don't know the problem, you can't find the solution for it."

3. Have every interviewer go through DEI training 

All the experts said that interviewers need better training to make the hiring process more diverse and inclusive. Or, at least, not chip away at a brand.

Tony Lee, SHRM
Tony Lee.
SHRM

"If you're hiring, be sure to ask for interview training," SHRM's Lee said. "If you're talking with HR, they'll be sensitive to what to say or not to say. But on the managerial side, they tend to get very little training, and that can be detrimental for the company."

Chilazi said that training sessions which explain the methodology of hiring candidates, give interviewers time to practice interviewing, and iterate why adhering to the process are important to combat bias. Training could be as detailed as showing sample answers and their ratings so that interviewers know how to rate candidates' answers fairly and consistently. 

"It's hard to control your interviewers' behavior because they are human," Chilazi said. "But if companies are serious, they should be spending more time on training interviewers. That means get the teams together, give them training, and do a primer on unconscious bias and how to procedurally combat bias."

Fresh out of law school and an externship with a judge, a Connecticut attorney — who wished to remain anonymous for fear of blowback to her practice — was excited to interview with a partner for a job at a small law firm. But her excitement quickly turned to confusion after she handed over her original writing samples. The interviewer didn't believe they were hers. 

"Halfway through it, he said, 'It doesn't seem like you understood the instructions,'" the attorney said. "He kept saying things like, 'I don't think you wrote this without help' and 'Are you sure the judge didn't look at it?'" 

When the partner later emailed to see if she was still interested in the position, she politely declined.

4. Prepare behavioral questions and read the candidate's resume before walking into the room

IPG's Gardner said to prepare a list of questions to ask everyone, whether or not diversity is a factor. Interview questions are best if they are open-ended and behavioral-based, experts said. Behavioral questions emphasize examples and stories from the candidate's past behavior that demonstrate the competencies the new role requires. 

Using these questions reduces bias because they focus less on a candidate's title or years of experience, which can be biased, Jenkins said. Instead, they highlight the candidate's ability to perform.

Netta Jenkins, vice president of Global Inclusion for Mosaic Group and Ask Applications
Netta Jenkins.
Netta Jenkins

For a leadership role, Jenkins said, sample behavioral questions could be "How did you handle a time when you had to deliver difficult news to employees?" or "Tell me how you've grown in your position."

Another obvious tip some interviewers overlook: Read the person's resume. Not doing so is among the most vexing for candidates.

A 65-year-old Brooklyn executive assistant, who asked that her name not be used for fear of jeopardizing future employment, said that in one interview, the interviewer clearly didn't read her resume to recognize that she was not fresh out of college.

"She said they were looking for someone more college-age," said the executive assistant, adding that the length of experience on her resume would have made it clear she was not a recent grad. "So yes, carefully look at a resume, actually read it, and listen to what the person has to say before [making] a decision."

5. Don't make assumptions about people's backgrounds

Jenkins, who is also a cofounder and advisor of Dipper, an online community where professionals of color can share work experiences, is all too familiar with stories of unconscious bias. Although the platform is in its infancy, as of December, the site's users have shared nearly 4,000 reviews — good, bad, and indifferent, Jenkins said.

"The assumption that we have the same story is wrong," Jenkins said. 

Jenkins said those anecdotes from friends and family are all too common. One interviewer asked her friend, a woman, how she planned to manage childcare even though the friend had not brought it up. Another interviewer wrongly assumed Jenkins' brother was from an underprivileged environment. Jenkins, whose family is from Liberia, has had people assume she is African American and make references that were not part of her upbringing. 

Other assumptions veer into a candidate's preferences or mannerisms.  Some interviewers have chosen to speak in a voice, volume, or accent that is not their natural way of speaking. In other instances, assumptions manifest as questions about personal preferences that would not be asked of other candidates and are based on stereotypes.

In Barrington's case, he was met with all three when the interviewer fell into an urban slang, used an accent, and asked about "Love + Hip Hop." 

In Anglade's case, in addition to feeling like the company didn't have clear criteria for the role, she was turned off because the interviewers assumed she was not comfortable with technology. They asked that question in the follow-up email, then misconstrued her answer, she said. 

"Generation Xers have had to do the most adapting to technology, so it rankles for somebody to question how much I can adapt to technology," said Anglade, who is in her 50s. "Ageism is real, and it's unfair. I didn't want to be in that type of environment."

Another assumption that often backfires is giving compliments based on stereotypes or how the candidate seems different from "norms" for people from their background.

"When these things happen, there is a silver lining for candidates," Gardner said. "They get a heads-up on what the work environment might be like, and whether or not they will be set up for maximum success."

6. Keep biases away after the candidate leaves the office

When the interview is over and the candidate has left, inklings of unconscious bias can emerge during debrief sessions among interviewers. Having the requirements on hand can help manage perceptions and mitigate biases during such candidate evaluations.

When biases pop up, interviewers have to hold each other accountable, Rapatalo said, and return to the rubric made before the interview.

Berkner Boyt added that when someone in the room mentions, for example, that someone with a disability is "an inspiration," a black person is "articulate," or a Latinx person is "fiery," flip the script.

"Would they describe anyone else interviewed that way, using that adjective?" asked Berkner Boyt. "If the answer is no, then it shouldn't be factored in the hiring decision."