You Can Hire Better.

How To Empower Yourself to Create Equity at Work.

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Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

I got an email recently asking me about workplace equity. The gist of the email was that, unintentionally, the majority of their staff and leadership ended up being male, and they asked me for resources that might help them rectify this imbalance. 

A situation like this creates a big question: what do you do when the room you occupy doesn’t look like the room you envisioned? 

It reminded me of a time when I was a teacher—this is a story I tell all the time and normally I’d apologize to those who’ve heard it but the lesson I learned was so important and I hear so many stories that remind me of this time in my life so I’m going to tell it again story again—when I was called into the principal’s office after a particularly rowdy day with my students. The principal, after I threw out excuse after excuse about why my classroom was out of control, said to me, “Nope, the fact that the class is out of control is your fault.” 

Then he paused and said, “I don’t intend that to be mean. I intend it to be empowering.” 

I love getting emails like the one I got above. What gives me hope about emails like this—and questions about staffing or hiring or creating equity in the workplace—is that to ask these questions you have to assume some level of responsibility. Like my classroom, your workplace may be rowdy or out of control or not the space you wanted to build. If so, to some degree, it is your fault. 

But that means you can change it. 

I asked this person to identify the step in which the staffing issues began to become a problem. Was it that only men were applying for jobs at their cafe? Was it that men were being disproportionately promoted over women? These were the first questions we needed to ponder. Without clarity on where the problem lies (and the problem could lie in a number of places), it’s hard to know where to start. 

So how do we go about creating spaces that reflect our values? It requires knowing the amount of control you have over a space, and accepting that responsibility. It requires active participation, critical engagement, and meaningful steps and practices. We don’t simply build inclusive and equitable spaces by breathing them into reality—they require intentional work. 

And yes, that’s meant to be empowering. 

I think this is a helpful set of questions for folks to consider when they think about how to build an equitable space. This is by no means exhaustive, comprehensive, or prescriptive—basically a fancy way for me to tell you that I don’t have all the answers, there’s more research and tools available by doing a simple internet search, and that following these steps won’t fix everything. 

Instead, this list is meant to make you think about being proactive. Equity in the workplace isn’t an accident. I hope with these questions you can begin to think about how being proactive can start the process of creating a space that serves more people and provides equal opportunity to employees. 

Answer these questions and see if you can figure out where the problem might lie in your business: 

Question: Are folks from non-marginalized groups applying for jobs disproportionally than other groups? 

If so, then the problem is in job posting—both where and how the job posting is worded.

Where do you post for jobs? If the answer is on industry websites, then you’re only going to attract folks with a very specific set of job skills and experiences. Craigslist might seem like inviting an overflowing amount of emails into your inbox, but it’s one of the most widely-used job seeking platforms available. 

Did you post your job notice in your cafe? Perhaps you made a sign that you hung in the window of your coffee shop? You’ll likely attract someone who would already come into your cafe on the regular—which is fine if you’re a cafe that attracts all members of the community, but not great if only certain groups feel safe in your space (again, a bigger issue for another article). 

Consider reaching out to job placement groups or community organizers in your neighborhood. Is there a high school around looking to place students in jobs? Reach out to them!

If you’re seriously committed to serving your community, you have to make sure the community both feels comfortable in your space (another topic for a much larger conversation) and that they know of opportunities in your cafe that they might be interested in pursuing. You have to get outside of your regular channels—if you’re surfing through the same three channels on the television, you have no idea what’s playing on anything else. Go beyond where you are normally comfortable. 

There’s also the issue of wording in job advertisements. I went to Craigslist to try to find barista postings in my city, Chicago, and this was in the second posting I clicked: 

I’ve been a barista for almost ten years, and that sentence intimidates me. First off, it codes out a whole group of people (Starbucks baristas who might be looking to get into specialty coffee). And secondly, this is a sentence meant to intimidate—there’s no other reason for such a strong statement against certain types of coffee experience unless it’s meant to convey that these folks are “serious coffee people,” and those without the knowledge we have need not apply.

When you code for experience—like this ad that says no Starbucks baristas—then you code for people who have been given opportunities versus those who haven’t. 

Perhaps Starbucks was the only coffee shop in a person’s town, or a Starbucks was the only place this person could get hired as a new barista. Regardless, with statements like that, people are saying that you only care to perpetuate the pathway for opportunity. They care only to give jobs to people who have already been privileged enough to get a leg up in the first place. 

I’m not saying that there aren’t instances where experience matters, but I truly wonder if experience really matters in most situations. Sure, I’d want my surgeon to have experience, but do I really need my barista to have years of experience? What do we mean when we ask for our workforce to be experienced? Would someone who has worked in hospitality but not as a barista qualify for this job? 

If you’re truly keen on asking people to have experience in a low-paying position, then I think you need to think carefully about what experience means and expand your lens of experience more broadly. You will include more people, and you will find better candidates—you’ll just have to search for their skills a little harder. 

Question: Are folks from marginalized groups being passed over for job offers? Do folks from one identity group keep getting hired over others?

If the answer is yes, then the issue is a hiring issue. 

Imagine a stack of resumes. Imagine that there are resumes from people of all types of backgrounds, experiences, and identities. If, with this stack of resumes someone still continues to hire the same type of person over and over, I’d ask them to consider what their hiring criteria are. 

Hiring criteria? What’s that? Do you go into interviews with a vague sense of the questions you might ask and figure you’ll “wing it” throughout? That’s a recipe for disaster, and by disaster I mean tons of unconscious bias.

Ask everyone at least a baseline set of questions—and make sure you write down responses. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, and if you’re vibing with an applicant, you might go off course and remember just the good vibes and not that they said they would only work opening shifts and refuse to work weekends. Always have a pen and paper ready to write down responses. Treat an interviews as seriously as you’d feel if you were being interviewed. Honor every interview as such.

Another way to avoid personal bias is to invite someone else into the interview. In general, I encourage bosses to invite baristas and non-managerial staff to interviews. Not only does your have a better sense of what a space needs—they’re the ones who work in the space everyday—but they also serve as a check to your unconscious biases. Having others around helps to make sure that the things you perceive and take away from an interview aren’t just good vibes and a “feeling” that this person will be a “good fit.” Build in checkpoints for yourself—you are not infallible. 

In my past life as a teacher, rubrics were a really popular teaching aid and tool for students.  Rubrics are grids that students can use to figure out how we (teachers) assess their work. Students are usually graded on a scale of 0-3, and the criteria for getting a 0, 1, 2, or 3 are clearly lined out for them. There’s no ambiguity—a student knows what they need to do to score well. Likewise, these are useful tools for teachers who have to navigate a slew of information. A rubric ensures that students are graded based on the same criteria—it helps to avoid mistakes like giving one kid’s report a A and another kid’s report a C+ just because the second kid’s report was later in the stack. 

I’m not sure why we don’t have rubrics for hiring. People might argue there’s an “ineffable” quality to job candidates that can’t always be measured—I would argue against that—but if you have an idea of your needs in the position you posted for, it should make your job easier to create a standardized set of criteria. Ok, so the person doesn’t have coffee experience, but they do have hospitality experience? That gets them a few points on the rubric. This avoids any sort of “buddy buddy” vibes that could come up in an interview and creates a framework for standardization. 

To be clear, these standards should be critically examined—you shouldn’t find yourself in the same pitfalls that having a job posting with very specific, and often exclusionary, criteria can often land you in. Instead, a rubric can help you analyze what’s actually necessary in a job, and how you evaluate potential applicants. It’s so easy to like people who affirm either our own existence (we then hire people who look like us) or affirm the decisions we’ve made in the past (we hire people who look like the people who already work for us), and a rubric can help quantify the qualities that matter. 

Question: Are folks from marginalized groups leaving your workplace faster than others? Do you have a problem retaining folks from marginalized groups?

If the answer is yes, there is a culture problem. 

This problem is easy to diagnose, but harder to combat. “Culture” is one of those words we use to define qualities about a job that sort of escape definition—and that can be especially dangerous. 

Let’s use a tangible example. Say that part of the culture of your cafe is to go out for drinks on Fridays. You have a staff member on your team that has a child and has to go straight home after work. Even though this employee is great, you don’t get as much face time with them as you do other employees. When a promotion or a new position comes up, who do you think you’ll hire? 

There are two problems in this situation. One is the Friday drinks. It’s ok for staff to organize events that don’t cater to everyone (not everyone wants to join your soccer league), but for official company outings you have to have at least some sort of venue for that caters to and allows participation for everyone. Let your staff and other non-managerial folks do whatever they want outside of work—they can meet for drinks any day of the week—but if you’re the leader, you have to make sure you create spaces that all members of your staff can feel invited to and comfortable in. 

The second problem is about how people move up in a company. How are promotions handed out? Are jobs posted for everyone to apply to? Who occupies spaces of leadership? Are departments in your business segregated by a specific category?  

I had a friend who was told to apply for a position that had been posted for weeks, and was given the position the day after he applied. It was clear the bosses only wanted him (I mean, I could obscure his identity more, but obviously it was a him are we even surprised) for this position and weren’t going to consider anyone else. 

That job was at least posted within the company, but there are countless jobs that are never posted anywhere. They are simply breathed into existence for the “right person.” Or perhaps a job is posted, but the bosses really have the position in mind for someone they want to keep around. And usually, it’s for the person they can “imagine” taking the job because they see themselves in that person. Power perpetuates and promotes keeping the status quo. 

This is the part of the article where I encourage you to read up on confirmation bias or implicit bias. 

I’ll talk about this idea in depth another time, but if you’re a person in power, consider how and who you promote. Equity means nothing if your staff is stratified by any sort of identity. If cis het men are in positions of power over a more diverse group of lower-paid employees, then your claims of “equity” are not only false, but they carry with them real ramifications around building job skills and financial outcomes. 

These aren’t the only places where equity is broken in the workplace—in fact I’d argue this is a pretty simplistic understanding of the issues surrounding equity in the workplace—but these are necessary places to start. And remember: issues of equity in your workplace are your problem. But it’s a problem you can work to solve if you accept responsibility. And yes, that is meant to be empowering.

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