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Becoming Aware of and Accounting for Personal Bias

Building A Team
Diversity
Cultural Differences

10 May, 2021

Jean du Plessis
Jean du Plessis

Director of Engineering at Sourcegraph

Jean du Plessis, Director of Engineering at Sourcegraph, puts in the emotional labor required to challenge the implicit biases that separate him from others, seeking the counsel of those close to him when unsure how best to proceed.

Problem

Something that I always make an effort to fess up to in hiring: unconscious bias. Bias to race or ethnicity, to gender or to level of experience, and so on. Having bias does not necessarily make you a bad person. It’s when this bias is not acknowledged or challenged internally that it can become a problem. Stereotypes will always be something to overcome intellectually. We need to get away from this way of thinking.

I am constantly asking myself how I can make sure that I’m taking my own bias out of the equation. Just because somebody is switching careers, for example, and may not appear to already have the talent required to succeed in the role, does that mean that I should not give them the opportunity to prove themselves? These diamonds in the rough will be people that you remember for the rest of your career.

A lot of companies wish to have a more diverse representation of people on their teams. If we don’t change our hiring outlook, this will become much more difficult to do. If you’re always looking for a certain type of person, whether in terms of level of seniority or otherwise, you will always have this bias toward receiving a particular type of individual. You need to open yourself up to other types of candidates.

Actions taken

How can we remove bias from the interviewing process? What is the best way to interpret signals from candidates, especially when we are not the ones interviewing them firsthand? If you really want to lean into this concept of hiring for talent, you should set yourself up to identify talent specifically. What is it that makes somebody special? What do you believe makes a candidate successful within the environment that your company offers?

The one thing that I really like about our own interview process is that everybody who completes a scorecard on a potential hire gets the opportunity to also rate them on how well they align with our company values as they already exist. In the end, you get a good idea of where the candidates align with your values overall. Hiring for culture is essential. Without this metric, bias will trap us into hiring only a very narrow, specific type of candidate every single time. Hiring in the spirit of diversity of thought and representation becomes much easier when taking a closer look at how a candidate resonates with your company’s mission. The team will become more interconnected as these common values are recognized and appreciated.

Recently, I found myself interviewing somebody switching the track of their career. On the face of it, they are not necessarily qualified to cut above other people more experienced in the type of role that they have applied for. I am still giving them an opportunity to proceed with our interviewing process, because I want to see if they’ve got something special to offer that their resume or CV cannot really express to a hiring manager.

A teammate at work taught me: if you’re looking for somebody who is motivated and driven and passionate, look at people taking a leap like this. It takes dedication to do that. I think that a lot of people are looked over and promptly dismissed based on their qualifications on paper alone.

Lessons learned

  • Biases are unconscious and automatic. The first step is being aware of what biases that you have. You will start to recognize these situations where you are making a judgement on someone unfairly. You’ll begin to ask yourself whether you are making the judgement based on fact or on feeling and intuition.
  • Nobody enters a situation wishing consciously to exert prejudice. Once you are able to acknowledge that implicit inclination, you are then able to challenge the tendency actively as you form your opinions. It all starts with being aware of it.
  • I’m making an effort to go back to a first-principles type of mindset. Why am I hiring somebody? We fall into this trap that we need to always be hiring better. I don’t believe in that. I think that we need to be hiring right, and sometimes that means assuming a different perspective. If you’ve already got a team full of seniors, it’s probably not the correct move to hire another senior.
  • The way that you frame a job in the listing that you put out there can also limit the pool of candidates that you bring in. There are websites that allow you to analyze whether or not the copy of your listing is coded masculinely or femininely. Certain terms carry unconscious connotations with them. You want to make sure that the language that you use is inclusive and free of jargon. The way that you portray the company may discourage some people from applying.
  • Asking for guidance from a colleague who is part of a demographic that you have difficulty reaching for insight will help you flesh out your own perspective. They will help you to raise questions that build a sense of empathy for challenges unseen from your own viewpoint.

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