You Can Hire Better

How to empower yourself to build equity at work

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You have the power to hire better—you just need to realize it.

I got an email asking about workplace equity. Amanda** owns a cafe and shared that, unintentionally, the majority of her staff and leadership ended up being male. She wasn’t sure how this happened and asked for resources that might help them rectify this imbalance. 

A situation like this poses a big question most employers have had to think about: what do you do when your workplace doesn’t reflect your values?

Amanda’s email reminded me of my time as a teacher. I was called into the principal’s office after a particularly rowdy day with my students. After I threw out excuse after excuse about why my classroom was out of control, my principal said, “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 went back to Amanda’s email. Her question was a good first step. It showed that she understood that the gender inequity at work was partially due to something she did. To ask these questions is 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, it’s your fault. 

But that means you can change it. 

I asked Amanda to identify the step in which staffing issues became a problem. Was it that only men were applying for jobs at their cafe? Was it that men were being disproportionately promoted over women? 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 create spaces that reflect our values? It requires knowing the amount of control you have over a space and accepting that responsibility. Inclusive and equitable spaces are not simply breathed into reality—they require intentional work and acceptance of responsbility. 

And yes, that’s meant to be empowering. 

Below are a 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, this is a fancy way for me to tell you that I don’t have all the answers. There are so many amazing resources or tools available online, and when in doubt, hire someone to help you. Do not ask for free labor.

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

If so, then the problem is in the job posting.

Where do you post for jobs? If the answer is on industry websites, then you’re only going to attract folks within your industry. Craigslist might seem like inviting your inbox to burst into flames, but it’s one of the most widely-used job-seeking platforms available and it’s accessible to a wide audience.

Did you put a job posting up at your workplace? Perhaps you made a sign that you hung in the window? You’ll likely attract someone who already interacts with your space, which can be great—if your space is a true community hub. If your space isolates or alienates folks (which is a bigger issue) then you’ve answered your own question.

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, make sure community members know of opportunities in your space. 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 the second posting I clicked: 

I’ve been a barista for almost ten years, and that sentence intimidates me. This job description eliminates out a whole group of people (Starbucks baristas who might be looking to get into specialty coffee). I think the writer of this job posting meant to convey that their cafe is a place for “serious baristas,” but instead comes off as condescending and discouraging. This job is for “real baristas only” and those without the requisite experience 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 a specific, and narrow, pathway for opportunity. An employer with this mindset only cares to employ people who have already been privileged enough to gain access to experience. 

I’m not saying that there aren’t instances where experience matters. I do wonder if experience matters in most situations. Sure, I’d want my surgeon to have experience, but do I really need my barista or server to have years of experience? What are we actually saying when we ask for experience? If you don’t have a good answer for that then reconsider the requirement.

Question: Are folks from marginalized groups getting hired? Do folks from one group keep getting hired over others?

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

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 unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias is the way we evaluate others without knowing. We all do this. We make decisions about people based on our own lived experiences, and it’s easier for us to like folks who remind us of ourselves. Without a set standard of questions or criteria, a job interview can lean heavily into our own biases.

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. You might remember 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 interview seriously.

Another way to avoid personal bias is to invite someone else to interview alongside yourself. Bosses should invite folks who have or currently do the role that you’re interviewing applicants for. Not only do these folks have a better sense of what a space needs—they’re the ones who work in the space every day—but they also serve as a check to your unconscious biases.

In my past life as a teacher, rubrics were a really popular teaching aid. Rubrics are grids that students can use to figure out how 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 an A and another kid’s report a C+ just because the second kid’s report was later in the stack. 

A brief rubric for hiring can be a helpful tool. People might argue there’s an “ineffable” quality to evaluating job candidates that can’t always be measured. I would argue against that, and if you have an idea of what you need from an applicant, it should make your job easier to create a standardized set of criteria.

The standards you set for a job should be critically examined. 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 look like us, and a rubric can help remove unconscious bias that quantifies the qualities that matter. 

Question: Do you have a problem retaining folks from marginalized groups?

If the answer is yes, there is a problem with the culture of your workplace. 

This problem is easiest to diagnose, but hardest to combat. “Culture” is one of those catchall terms that we use to describe what a workplace feels like—and that can be especially hard to define. 

Let’s use a tangible example. Say that part of the culture of your business 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 official company outings should be designed 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 how promotions are given. Are jobs posted for everyone to apply to? Who occupies spaces of leadership? Are departments in your business segregated by a specific category?  

Consider how a job is shared. Is a job description written and shared for all to apply, or is a position simply breathed into existence for the “right person?” Consider how departments in a business are organized—equity means nothing if your staff is stratified by any sort of identity. An organization can look diverse from the outside but continue to perpetuate discriminatory practices if one group of people occupy positions of power over groups of lower-paid employees.

Remember: if you’re a leader at your organization, 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.

**Name has been changed
updated 10.30.2020

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