Todd Schiller

Machine and Business Intelligence


If you're like most business leaders, George Floyd's death and the resulting push for reform have led you to reflect on your own company's approach to diversity and inclusion (D&I).

One thing has become clear: D&I initiatives must be holistic in order to succeed. Holistic initiatives recognize the interplay between talent acquisition, human resources, marketing, and management. Each of these elements is important: you can consistently hit your D&I hiring targets—but if your hires exit quickly because of an unsupportive environment, you won't make meaningful progress.

In this post, I call out three common mistakes that undermine D&I during interviews. For each mistake, I also identify the solution. As best practices, these solutions have an added bonus of informing more accurate hiring decisions and providing a better experience for all candidates.

Mistake 1: Letting interviewers wing it

There's certainly value in giving interviewers some space to develop their personal style. After all, interviews should give candidates a feel for your team. But you can't just leave interviewers to their own devices. Just like any skill, effective interviewing requires both training and practice. Plus, you want each interview to fit into a cohesive hiring strategy

The worst-case scenario is that an interviewer asks discriminatory questions like, "What is your religion?" or, "How old are you?". These kinds of questions are illegal, and they also expose your company to equal-opportunity lawsuits.

But there are also more subtle risks to letting interviewers take their own approach. For example, how often do interviews devolve into chats about shared experiences? It’s all too easy for interviewers to start reminiscing about their time on the college lacrosse team. Using interview time this way creates two problems. First, if an interviewer’s talking about lacrosse, they're not using that time to assess whether the candidate has the competencies and skills necessary for the role. Second, the interviewer is just heightening their own in-group bias. In-group bias is the cognitive bias that means you judge people more favorably if you think they’re like you.

The solution is to equip your interviewers with the tools they need for each interview. A simple way to prep is to establish areas the interview should focus on and provide examples of good questions to ask.

The gold standard here is "Structured Hiring." In structured hiring, interviewers ask each candidate a consistent set of questions. Research indicates that structured hiring is more fair to diverse groups. Google has also found that adopting structured hiring practices made their interviews more predictive of job performance.

Mistake 2: Not thinking about the composition of your interview panel

Hiring is an inexact science. There's limited time and imperfect information. To maximize your chances of making a good hiring decision, you need each interview to provide an independent view of the candidate. The more independent the views, the higher the likelihood that any errors or biases will cancel each other out.

With Mistake 1, we talked about In-Group bias. Since you can't completely escape bias in the interview process, in order to accurately assess candidates, you also have to assemble a diverse interview panel.

In this context, “diversity” doesn’t just mean ethnicity or gender. People with different roles also provide unique perspectives. For example, if you’re hiring a software engineer, you should include stakeholders that the new hire would interact with from your product management, design, and customer support teams.

There's also another critical reason to assemble a diverse interview panel: top candidates can choose where to work. When they interview, they’re also interviewing your company. To win these candidates, you have to be able to authentically show them that they can succeed at your company. For diverse candidates, this means showing that they’re represented and that they’ll have support.

Again, strive for authenticity. Change Management Consultant Jess Wass says that she encounters a common pitfall at companies that lack diversity. They end up establishing “token” diverse interviewers, e.g., the one woman or black engineer in the department. These token interviewers are inundated with interviews, even ones unrelated to their role. She recommends that each “interviewer should have a legitimate reason to interview the candidate aside from being the same ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation as the candidate.”

Mistake 3: Hiring for cultural fit instead of shared values

A strong company culture is a powerful thing. Management expert Peter Drucker was famous for saying, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."

The problem with assessing cultural fit during interviews is that, in practice, interviewers substitute the question, “Is this person like me?” And, given the short interaction time in an interview, interviewers inevitably use superficial factors to answer this question.

The result is teams of carbon copies. You've seen them: each member looks the same, dresses the same, grew up in the same areas, went to the same schools, and so on.

The solution is to instead assess the shared values underlying your company's culture instead of those superficial factors. Examples of these shared values are excellence, integrity, and learning. Amazon’s shared values famously include frugality and customer obsession.

Unlike "cultural fit," there are tried-and-true ways to evaluate shared values. The best practice is to ask behavioral interview questions. Behavioral questions typically start with. "Tell me about a time...". From the candidate’s initial response, you can then go deeper with follow-up questions.

The journey ahead

You can't ensure perfect D&I overnight. Like everything else that's important, making progress takes deliberate effort. But, by eliminating these major mistakes from your interview process, you can start the journey off on the right foot.