My Diverse Hiring Playbook
I’m proud of my track record building diverse teams. When I’ve been responsible for hiring, those teams have consistently been more diverse than industry norms, often significantly so. Over the years, I’ve developed a set of “plays”, some go-to tactics for increasing the diversity of my hiring pipeline. This is that playbook.
Where I’m coming from
This starts from the premise that diverse teams are a goal worth pursuing. I believe it is: there’s plenty of evidence that diverse teams perform better, but I also believe it’s a goal worth pursuing for ethical reasons. And, if I’m being honest, there’s a selfish reason too: I just plain enjoy working on diverse teams more.
But if you disagree with this premise, boy are you gonna hate the rest of this article. I strongly suggest you go read something else.
It’s not just a pipeline problem - but that’s what I’m addressing here
This playbook is only about hiring – how to attract a more diverse talent pipeline. It will only be effective in the long term if your organization is able to keep the diverse talent it hires. As Ashe Dryden once wrote:
OH: Should we be encouraging women to get into the pipeline when we know the pipeline leads to a sewage treatment plant?
Perhaps at a later date I’ll publish my inclusivity playbook1, but I’m not addressing that here other than to say: if your organization treats underrepresented people badly, no amount of “pipeline” work will improve things. Fix your inclusivity problem first.
The meta-play: prioritizing DEI with our time and attention
There’s a theme in many of the “plays” below, which I want to make explicit:
We have a limited amount of resources – attention, effort, time, money – to devote to hiring. By necessity, hiring involves a lot of triage. We don’t have time to interview every candidate who applies, so we do a resume screen as a first filter even though we know it’s not as accurate as a full interview. We apply heuristics like using years of experience as a proxy for deeper skills testing even though we know that there’s only a weak correlation (at best) between years of experience and expertise.
We make many choices about how to spend our resources on hiring. We can choose to prioritize diversity, or choose not to. If diversity is important to you, choose to prioritize it with your time, attention, effort, and money.
My Diverse Hiring Playbook
With that out of the way, here are my go-to plays:
- Adopt a “Rooney Rule”
- Use opportunistic hires strategically
- Focus outbound recruiting on underrepresented candidates
- Pay for postings to job boards targeting underrepresented communities
- Culture a network of “connectors”
- Be explicit that you’re looking to build diverse teams
Adopt a “Rooney Rule”
The Rooney Rule is an NFL policy that requires teams to interview at least one ethnic minority (e.g. Black, Hispanic, etc.) candidate for senior coaching roles. Its intent was to address racial bias in head coaching jobs – data showed that Black coaches have higher winning percentages than white coaches, but are less likely to be hired than similarly-qualified white candidates.
I use a variant in my own practices: “interview at least one candidate from an underrepresented background before making an offer.” That is, expand the rule from just covering ethnic minorities to a broader view of underrepresentation.
Now, the Rooney Rule doesn’t appear to have been particularly successful at the NFL: there are the same number of minority head coaches today as there were in 2003, when the rule was adopted. Still, I’ve found that adopting a variant of the Rooney Rule to be a useful first step in my own hiring practices. As the outcome from the NFL illustrates, I don’t think a Rooney Rule is sufficient by itself, but it does serve as a useful backstop. If you are in danger of violating the Rooney Rule, it’s usually a sign that something’s gone wrong in your candidate pipeline, and can prompt you to look for and address the issue. Thus, I don’t really treat this as a “rule”, per se – as in, exceptions are fine – but instead treat it more as a signal to dig into why a pool of candidates isn’t as diverse as we might like.
For example, in a recent role I was hiring for, the first round of candidates we interviewed were all white men. Our “rule” encouraged us to look into why that was, and we discovered that we’d done a fairly poor job on sourcing. We’d only advertised the job to one community, and that community wasn’t one that was particularly diverse. And none of the folks on the hiring team had done much work on outbound recruiting. So now we have some solid hypothesis about why our candidate pool isn’t as good as we’d like, and we can make corrections – for this job, sure, but more importantly for all our hiring work going forward.
Use opportunistic hires strategically
Most of the organizations I’ve hired for have had some sort of capacity for “opportunistic hires” – that is, hiring someone outside of the standard hiring workflow. Opportunistic hiring is generally speaking a really good idea: if we know about someone who’d be a great fit for our organization, it’s great to have the capacity to hire them without a specific posted job opening2. If you force candidates to wait for a job to be posted, you’ll likely lose out on some of the best people you’d want to work with.
However, opportunistic hiring can also be dangerous from a diversity standpoint. Opportunistic hires are almost always people we already know: a teammate from a previous employer, someone we’ve worked with on an open source project, acquaintances from industry conferences, etc. Most of us don’t have particularly diverse professional networks – we tend to be friends with people most like us – opportunistic hires can often increase the homogeneity of a team.
But if we’re careful, opportunistic hiring can just as easily be a powerful tool to increase a team’s diversity. The move is to focus opportunistic hiring on candidates who’ll help our diversity goals. This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t use opportunistic hires to hire majority candidates – but it does mean that you should consider the diversity impact of opportunistic hires. And I recommend going a bit further: pay close attention to the moves of people in your professional networks, and prioritize using opportunistic hires on the people who’ll help your diversity goals.
Here’s the theme again: we have a limited amount of time – you can’t approach every single person in your network when they go on the market – so we’re always already making strategic decisions about how to spend our opportunistic hires. Indeed, we already consider certain forms of diversity when making opportunistic hires: it’s pretty common to say things like “wow, A— is looking for a job, they’d be great to work with but we don’t really need another penetration tester right now…”. Hiring isn’t about each individual candidate in a vacuum; it’s about building the best team. Part of the definition of “best” includes “diverse”, and opportunistic hires are one of the better tools for moving the needle on that aspect of “best team”.
Focus outbound recruiting on underrepresented candidates
Along similar lines: to the extent that you do outbound recruiting, prioritize recruiting underrepresented candidates.
One thing I do every time I’m trying to fill a role is to go through my networks and reach out to people who I think might be interested. This is crazy effective: I’d say at least a quarter of the people I hire come from this style of outbound recruiting3. So I strongly recommend that all hiring manages do this.
However, I find this exhausting, and you might too. I find cold-emailing people to ask if they want to leave their job feels awkward and uncomfortable, and it rubs against my introverted nature hard. So I’m never going to have the energy to reach out to everyone in my networks who might be a good fit. And even if you don’t find this exhausting: you still probably don’t have the time. There are thousands of people in most managers’ virtual rolodex, hundreds of whom are usually at least somewhat interesting for any given role they’re filling. So any way you slice it, you have to focus.
So, once again, my suggestion is that you choose to focus that energy at least partially on underrepresented candidates – e.g. if you can only send a dozen outbound recruiting emails, send half of them to underrepresented people.
This play also applies to working with dedicated recruiters. If you’re working with a recruiter, direct them to focus their energy on sourcing a diverse candidate pool, and hold them accountable for results.
Pay to target underrepresented communities
I’m fairly skeptical of the value proposition of the large job boards – I’ve never had any luck with Indeed, Monster, paid postings on LinkedIn, etc. But I have seen good results from job boards targeting smaller communities, and luckily there are several out there that target underrepresented communities. A budget of $1,000 to $3,000 is enough to get you several postings, and is usually a fairly easy expense to get approved (a small sum of money that translates to substantial results).
As a starting point, here are a few boards I’ve used in the past:
This is by no means a comprehensive list! If you’ve got additional suggestions, please feel free to email me and I’ll add them to the list above.
If you’ve got a larger budget, consider partnering with Recurse Center. RC alumni are some of the best programmers in the world, and their alumni demographics are impressive. So paying RC gets you access to network that’s likely more talented and more diverse than your typical candidate pool.
Cultivate a network of “connectors”
There’s a certain type of person I think of as a “connector”: they seem to know everyone, and delight in introducing people to each other. These folks are incredibly valuable professional connections, and can play a key role in building great teams. Not all “connectors” prioritize diverse networks but my experience is that most do: I think these kind of people value breadth and diversity as much as they value the size of their network.
I count three such people among my friends, and they’re the first folks I contact when I’m looking to fill an important role. I’ll share a few words about the role, and remind them that I’m particularly looking to speak to underrepresented candidates (see below) – though, at this point, these folks know me well enough they probably don’t need the reminder.
At this point I’ve made, gosh, at least a dozen key hires recommended by these three, and each person referred this way has turned out to be a spectacular colleague. They’ve never let me down.
Be explicit that you’re looking to build diverse teams
This one’s easy, but often overlooked: when you’re recruiting, explicitly say that you’re looking for a diverse candidate pool. When underrepresented people read job ads, they’re looking for signals that they’ll be treated fairly by the hiring process and the company. Much of the time, they’re forced to read between the lines – if a job post refers to the product as “sexy” is that just lazy writing, or does it indicate a bro-y work atmosphere? – but you can cut right through that by being direct.
My usual approach is to call this out when I’m doing any form of recruiting. So for example, when I email a “connector”, as mentioned above, I’ll say something like
I’m looking for a Teapot Wrangler to join my team, someone with a lot of experience with cast iron teapots would be ideal. JD is here: [link]. If you know of any good candidates, I’d love an intro! I’m particularly interested in speaking to folks from underrepresented backgrounds.
I also use that same language – “I’m particularly interested …” – in tweets/toots, posting to community Slacks/Discords, etc.
Along similar lines, don’t be afraid to brag about your DEI accomplishments. I’m proud of my team’s diversity, and I’ll often lead with that when candidates ask me what I like about my job.
This also can come up if candidates ask about your team’s DEI track record. That’s not an uncommon question – I ask it every time I’m looking for a job! – so be prepared to answer. Brag about your accomplishments where you have them, but also be straightforward about gaps. “Diversity” has many axes, and it’s super unlikely that you’re killing it across all of them. Don’t dissemble or obfuscate; just be straightforward about where you have room for improvement.
A brief note on measuring the diversity of your hiring pipeline
Finally, a quick note on how I typically track and measure diversity in my hiring pipeline. This is a complex issue, deserving of exploring in more depth than I’ll go into below, but it always comes up when I talk about this, and so I want to address it briefly.
How do I measure the demographics of my hiring pipeline? I typically don’t.
Ideally, employers would gather demographic information as part of the application process and use that to measure outcomes – the most important being: “do the demographics of the ’top’ of the funnel match the demographics of people who get offers?”
However, this has to be done in a way that protects candidates’ privacy. This means that you need to have a large enough organization to separate the responsibility of reviewing demographic data from those involved in the hiring loop. That is, anyone in the hiring loop for a particular job must not see the demographic information of the people in that candidate pool. You also need to have a large enough candidate pool that you can operate on aggregated data without de-anonymizing any individuals. If you’re not operating at scale, asking for demographic information can harm more than it helps.
So, because most of my hiring experience comes in the startup world, where we’re absolutely not operating at a scale sufficient to protect candidates, I don’t usually ask demographic questions as part of the application. This isn’t great: a measure based more on “vibes” than on hard data isn’t awesome. But at small organizations, I think the cure is worse than the harm, so “vibes” is the best we can do.
Sumana Harihareswara just published Some Diversity Advice I Give, a roundup of her DEI tips. There are some great additional resources in that post, check it out.
If you’ve got other tips for building a diverse hiring pipeline, I’d love to hear them! Email
jacob at this domain, or toot at me.
But I also might not, because honestly: it’s kinda boring. Pay people the same regardless of their gender, race, etc. Don’t tolerate discriminatory behavior. Fire people who harass their coworkers. It’s all fairly obvious, and I think a post about all that might just be preaching to the choir. Perhaps I’m wrong? Email me and let me know if this is a post you’d like to see. ↩︎
This is, however, something of a selfish opinion: I have been hired opportunistically a few times. ↩︎
This includes a lot of second-degree candidates, e.g. I’ll reach out to someone who isn’t themselves interested but knows someone who might be, and makes the connection. More on that later. ↩︎