On racist intermediaries in hiring processes

Up front disclaimer: I am not currently hiring. Right now I’m a one man shop just about managing to pay myself. This is based on past experience, and intended for the benefit of others. This just came to mind for a variety of reasons recently so I felt the need to write it down.

I’ve been part of a moderate number of hiring processes. I’ve not generally had final say, but my voice was pretty loud in the decisions and the designs of some of these processes.

In that time, I have never been part of hiring a black person. This is pretty bad, particularly given that I was entirely hiring for jobs in London which is about 13% black by population.

I’d like to fix it if I’m part of a hiring process in future, but at the time I didn’t even understand why it was happening. I’ve since partially figured it out.

It certainly wasn’t a deliberate choice on my part. I’m able to say with reasonable confidence in this case that it’s not the result of subconscious racial bias, or even the result of an unintentionally biased interview process.

That’s not to say I didn’t have those things. I’ve done my best to minimize them, but they’re hard to spot and eradicate completely. But regardless, in this case they weren’t the factor for a much simpler reason: To the best of my knowledge, no black candidates have ever applied for a position I was interviewing for (it’s possible that some have and not made it past the pre-screening stage. I don’t think so, but I don’t know for sure).

I don’t present this as a defence, but as the place to start when fixing this problem.

It took me far too long to even realise this was happening, and even then I didn’t really figure out what was going on until after I stopped being part of hiring processes.

I’ve mostly been part of small companies, and the biggest reason a small company doesn’t hire anyone is quite simple: The company haven’t heard of the candidate, and the candidate hasn’t heard of the company (or maybe has heard of the company but didn’t know they were hiring / didn’t think to apply there).

This is sourcing: The process of getting candidates into your hiring pipeline in the first place.

The biggest clue in retrospect that sourcing was the main problem was a hiring process I was part of that did a very good job of removing bias: A lot of it was done with blind review, so we we didn’t know who the candidate was when we were reviewing that part of the work. All the questions were kept consistent across different candidates and had relatively objective scoring. The words “culture fit” never appeared at any point in the process. Our job ads were maybe not great, but we’d run them by people and they weren’t awful and lacked obvious red flags.

The result was that although we still hired entirely white men, we got a lot of older people and a lot of eastern Europeans. This wasn’t a total failure: Ageism and prejudice against eastern Europeans are certainly problems in the tech industry, and the fact that this was quite different to our usual set of hires suggested that the system had worked, but it’s still pretty telling that the result remained a bunch of white men.

And this is the big problem of sourcing: You can (and should) remove all the bias from your interview process you want, but if the set of candidates entering the process isn’t diverse then the set of candidates you hire won’t be either.

Sourcing is really hard. It’s a specialised skill I don’t have, and I can’t teach you how to do it. If you want to know a bit more about sourcing, Eva Gonzalez did a good talk about it at PyCon UK.

Most small companies aren’t hiring regularly enough that they can afford to have someone on staff who has this specialised skill. As a result, we tend to work around our lack of skill in it in one of two ways:

  1. We hire our friends and friends of friends.
  2. We use external recruiters

(This is often how it works at larger companies too, but I have less experience of hiring there so I won’t talk about it)

The first is problematic because it tends to reinforce demographic problems: The friends we hire tend to be from “the tech scene”, which tends to be even more young, male and white than the background of tech overall, and even without that friendships tend to be skewed along racial lines.

On the other hand, it’s basically impossible to persuade people not to do it, because it’s a good way of getting good candidates and most hiring processes end up caring far more about the candidates you get rather than the candidates you exclude. So I won’t talk about that further.

Recruiters though can be a major source of unintended bias.

The problem is that at the receiving end, you only really see the people who the recruiters let through. You don’t get to see the people they don’t send your way, and that’s where a lot of bias can creep in.

This doesn’t even necessarily have to be the result of direct racism on the part of the recruiters (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it often is. Certainly I know from female or non-binary friends that they’ve experienced a lot of sexism at the hands of recruiters. I… actually don’t really personally know any black people in tech inside the UK, so I can’t ask them), but there are plenty of other ways it can occur. e.g. a lot of recruiters select for only people who went to “top” universities, which tends to select for a certain amount of socioeconomic class (which is correlated with race). In all honesty, these universities are probably still doing better at diversity than tech is, but when you combine the two factors it makes things even worse. Another issue is that recruiters often get candidates in the same way that tech firms do by spreading along social lines – e.g. recommending the recruiter who found you a job to your friends, so small effects get magnified again.

There are almost certainly more sources of bias at the recruiter level, but the key point is that it is very difficult for me to know what these are: When hiring, I have little to no visibility of them. When going through a recruitment process I don’t experience them because I’m white. There probably are good written resources on this, but I don’t know what they are despite a moderate amount of googling (I’ve read things like Hire More Women In Tech, which have good advice if you’re sourcing yourself but mostly seem to stop at “hire a professional recruiter” for this problem).

I also don’t know how to solve this. I didn’t really figure out what the problem was until it’s too late last time, so I’ve no practical experience of making this work.

But here are some things I’d try next time that might be worth other:

  1. Listening to responses from other people to this blog post! “I used this recruiter and they appeared to do a good job of sourcing candidates who weren’t just white men” or “I used this recruiter and they weren’t racist to me” style recommendations are particularly welcome. More generally, I’m happy to hear any sort of recommendations on this subject at all.
  2. Prefer recruiters on retainer rather than on commission. I don’t know for sure that this will help, but this post by Thayer Prime on why she hates recruiting on commission is pretty good, and it lines up with a number of problems I’ve seen. Recruiters who are on commission will tend to be fairly aggressively uninterested in doing anything that decreases the hiring rate of people they send you even if it also decreases the false negative rate, which is why you get behaviours like selecting based on the university people went to represented so heavily.
  3. Look for recruiters who are, themselves, black or other people of colour. I think every recruiter I’ve worked with so far has been white (and most have been men), and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
  4. Have a long hard talk with recruiters I’m using when I notice this is happening. If that doesn’t go satisfactorily, find a different recruiter.

I’ve no idea which of those are good ideas (OK, I’m pretty sure the first one is a good idea), and I don’t know which of them will help, but I do think this is a problem that needs solving, so we can but try.

It’s also likely that once the sourcing problem has been fixed (or at least improved) all other sorts of problems in the hiring process will be made visible, but that’s at least progress.


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