Friday, December 4, 2020

Recruiting for diversity is not lowering the bar


I believe there are multiple reasons why hiring processes should account for diversity, but I’d like to use this post to address a common counterargument that people raise in discussions about diversity.

The argument typically goes like this: “diversity is important, but we won’t lower the bar”. I believe that this line of reasoning is flawed in a few ways that I’d like to highlight.

The blub paradox

One common source of hiring bias is the inability to recognize or appreciate strengths greater than or different from one one’s own strengths. I would like to make an analogy to Paul Graham’s post on Beating the Averages:

As long as our hypothetical Blub programmer is looking down the power continuum, he knows he’s looking down. Languages less powerful than Blub are obviously less powerful, because they’re missing some feature he’s used to. But when our hypothetical Blub programmer looks in the other direction, up the power continuum, he doesn’t realize he’s looking up. What he sees are merely weird languages. He probably considers them about equivalent in power to Blub, but with all this other hairy stuff thrown in as well. Blub is good enough for him, because he thinks in Blub.

The above bias that people apply when evaluating programming languages also applies when evaluating candidates! People naturally prefer to hire people who share similar strengths, because they recognize and appreciate the value of those strengths. However, when confronted with strengths different from their own they may not interview for those strengths or even recognize them as strengths at all. Quite the opposite: they may view the candidate as “weird” or “not a culture fit” for not cultivating the “right” strengths.

The notion of a “hiring bar” presumes that candidates can all be ordered on a line and those on one side of some cutoff should not be hired. This linear metaphor reinforces our biases around hiring candidates whose strengths align with our own: “Let’s take what I’m good at, and aim to hire somebody who is at least 10% better at that”.

Overcoming adversity

“Diversity hires” can also be much stronger than you appreciate, even when you evaluate them according to strengths that you are trained to recognize.

This is because underrepresented minorities often have to swim upstream against institutionalized discrimination and work harder just to reach the same accomplishments and milestones as their majority peers. A minority candidate can outperform your initial impression of them if you can remove these discriminatory barriers within your workplace.

Recruiting diverse candidates does not lower the bar

This post explains the concept well:

First, the idea that reaching a more diverse talent pool requires lowering the bar on quality reflects an insidious form of prejudice: somehow the pool of talent is thought of as a monolithic block, the top of which is predominantly white and male; it is only by going farther down from the top that more diverse candidates can be found. In reality, companies that struggle to attract diverse candidates are probably not making the effort to look in the right places.

Recruiting underrepresented minorities does not dilute the talent pool, unless you assume that you are already interviewing the best of the best (unlikely). In reality, you’re likely recruiting people who are easiest to find: those who already share the same professional networks and backgrounds.

This sort of bias minimizes recruiting costs, but at the expense of diversity and also the expense of the quality of hires. Explicitly recruiting for diversity challenges your recruiting process to expand beyond its comfort zone, increasing the access to talent and the quality of your hires.