Strengthening your hiring pipeline for diverse candidates


Diversity and inclusion starts and continues with the people you hire onto your team, and early in a startup’s life is the best time to start getting diverse candidates in.
Having the intent to build a diverse, inclusive, and equitable team is great but how many founders with all the intent in the world think “Build it and they will come” only to be met with crickets and the exact same candidates they weren’t hoping for (but in all honesty, had been expecting)? Where is everyone? 

Diversity and inclusion starts and continues with the people you hire onto your team, and early in a startup’s life is the best time to start getting diverse candidates in. Systemic bias is systemic for a reason: it tends to compound based on the biases of the system that built it. And the first sign of that system when you’re an early stage startup looking to recruit your very first employees is your young and fledging employer brand , which exists whether or not you work on it.

A 2021 Glassdoor study showed that 76% of candidates named diversity and inclusion as a top priority for employers. If you want to attract and retain high quality employees to drive growth and innovation, you need to do more than business as usual.

Before the application: How to start with a strong and diverse hiring pipeline

How you conduct your business day-to-day matters

If you have a company blog, are you only interviewing men? What kinds of public signals are you sending? They may very well be unintentional and that’s why D&I efforts always go back to asking hard questions and holding yourself and others accountable to do better. (It’s also why metrics can help from the very beginning to surface these issues where they may otherwise go unseen.) You should consider every aspect of your business: content, marketing, vendors and suppliers, and customers. When you start looking, what do you notice? How can you improve? Diversity, just like a lack of it, compounds over time.

Write inclusive job descriptions

This is already where a lot of companies fall short. Your job postings are a powerful tool in communicating your values as well as actively working to address the biases that applicants may have themselves. For example, you may inadvertently be turning away people who don’t relate to or identify with the language sometimes used in startup job postings, like “disruption”, “dominate”, “ambitious”, words that can have gendered associations.

Here are ways that you can be mindful with language to ensure you don’t turn away your diverse pipeline before you even know they exist:

  • Steer clear of gendered terms and use gender-neutral language instead.
  • Cut out the jargon to attract candidates with transferable skills who may be brand new to your industry. If jargon is necessary, consider explaining them briefly or linking out for a deeper explanation.
  • Be clear, honest, and transparent about the interview process: who might they be speaking with, how much time will they need to dedicate, what should they expect? Clarity helps candidates feel at ease, and they’re less likely to have a negative experience when provided with visibility into the hiring process. This is also a positive signal for candidates who are increasingly expecting transparency in more ways than one.
  • Be ruthless about what you consider and list as job requirements: Most skills can be learned and even experiences can become outdated quickly 
  • Explicitly welcome applications from candidates who may not feel that they meet all the listed requirements to actively address gender discrepancies.
  • Focus on outcomes, not inherent abilities.
  • Communicate your benefits and perks including any for flexibility, parental leave, and health insurance (and design them to align with your employer brand ).

Diversify your recruiting channels

Where are you recruiting ? Are you tapping into your network? As a follow-up, are you only tapping into your network? Are you getting all your referrals from a single source? (For example, are you only posting jobs in one place? If so, you’ll only get candidates who visit that particular site.) It can be easy to fall into the habit of recruiting in the channels that are most convenient and that have already been proven to work for you, but it’s this same trap that leads to a homogenous workforce. Like breeds like, and while referrals can help you fill your pipeline with quality candidates who are already, in many ways pre-screened, relying solely on referrals is another way that inequities reinforce and compound over time. 

You can specifically call out for current employees to refer candidates that they feel fit outside the box, keeping your pipeline hot with unconventional candidates that have the right core values and the qualities and skills you’re looking for, regardless of industry experience. (D&I starts with you but is only made possible through continued efforts of a team together).  

Try a new recruiting channel or method (that includes diversifying your marketing channels, too—employer and brand marketing go hand in hand), and see what happens.

The interview process: How to maintain a strong and diverse pipeline

Create a structured interview and candidate assessment process 

The most powerful way to fight a stagnant system is with a different kind of system. Leaving things up to intuition and intent isn’t enough. Learning about biases isn’t enough when you’re faced with how many biases we have and how deep-rooted in our psychology and culture they are. 

A structured interview and candidate assessment process not only protects against bias from person to person when different people are involved in the recruiting process who may not necessarily be HR-trained professionals, as is often the case with startups, but provides the opportunity to think strategically about outcomes and business needs in advance.

Have a diverse interview panel

A diverse interview panel works double-time in helping you recruit diverse candidates. Firstly, it’s a positive signal to people going through your interview process about the people involved in making important decisions at your company. Secondly, it helps to insulate against bias. Diverse interview panels are more likely to have different ways of perceiving responses or even other cues, verbal or non-verbal.  

Here’s the tricky thing to consider though: what if you have one woman on your team? Do they then hold sole responsibility of having to be part of every single interview? See, this is where a lack of diversity starts to compound when you have a token woman on your team. No easy answers, just something to consider as you’re building. Diversity and inclusion is hard work.

Build awareness around common hiring biases

“Trusting your gut” could be unconscious likeability bias, the silent killer in getting from a diverse ratio of candidates to a fully diverse team. This is where you need to do the mental work: what biases do you have? Are you turning down candidates for objective reasons or because of an unproven hunch? Chances are, if you have a gut feeling, there’s a bias for that.

Here are just a few of many common biases that can come into play when hiring: 
  • Confirmation bias: making a quick judgment about a candidate based on first impressions, good or bad, then going through the motions of an interview process with that same lens to confirm your initial judgments.
  • Expectation anchor bias: Holding onto one piece of pre-existing expectation to anchor your perceptions of a candidate, for example, having a specific idea about the type of person you’re looking for based on one previous experience.
  • Halo effect: Focusing on one specific aspect of the candidate, such as a big name on their resume, a top school, or even a visual trait—and allowing that to form a positive bias of that person. (It’s opposite is called the “horn effect”.)
  • Similarity attraction bias: Preferring or favoring candidates, even unintentionally, because they feel similar to us. Affinity bias is a preference for candidates based on a specific shared commonality, like knowing the same people. 
  • Beauty bias: This one’s obvious, isn’t it? It tends to play out in many aspects of life and work, including recruiting. 

Educate yourself and anyone involved in the recruiting process on these biases. When building a diverse team, you can be your own worst enemy. 

Recruiting for culture fit vs culture add: A final note

Culture fit has long been the standard “But are they right for this company?” HR buzz-term, but in recent years, it’s been acknowledged as a way for bias to embed itself in the hiring process without much in the way of an objective reason why. 

“They were a better culture fit," someone might offer up. And that can really just be a coded way of saying “I liked them more,” and that can be code too for “They are the most like me.” Seek to become not just comfortable with the discomfort of someone who is a little bit different, but appreciative of how that genuinely adds to business performance, culture, and relationships. It’s not just in how they look or where they come from, what their abilities are or how they identify, but in their perspectives, experiences, personalities, and quirks. 

Diversity is all-inclusive and this is your chance to build something that enables others to help your startup make the impact that it’s capable of making. After all, you’re not exactly looking to fit in either.
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