Subconscious biases in hiring

The tech industry has a diversity problem. It’s not the industry is full of racist, sexist, whateverist jerks (I mean, there are plenty of those jerks, but they’re not the majority). People have unconscious biases, and in industry that’s poorly-defined and rapidly changing, the tendency is to go for the safe, familiar bet.

Even people who are very smart and successful fall into this trap. Take, for example, Jeff Atwood. Jeff wrote a great piece a few weeks ago where he tore up the “we only hire the best” manta that many companies are so fond of deluding themselves into. Jeff describes hidden biases and talks about how damaging they can be. And then he advocates his own hidden bias.

The idea of an audition project is certainly appealing on the surface: you can take a risk on a candidate and see how well they actually work. No hoping that their resume and interview skills outshine their work performance. No worrying that you’ll be stuck with a malcontent who drags the rest of the team down for the next three years. No hiring a parent of young children. Wait, what?

Expecting someone to take a short-term trial job is basically saying “you must be this well-off to apply.” I have two small kids who already think I spend too much time in the office. There’s no way I would work an extra job for a few weeks unless we were in danger of being homeless. I changed jobs while I was in grad school. Atwood’s model would have meant I got no sleep for the duration of my trial period. Oh sure, I could have quit my job in the hopes that this audition worked out, but that’s a risk that very few people are in a position to take.

That Atwood would advocate such an idea in a post about hidden biases without even mentioning the fact that it biases the hiring process against many qualified candidates is a testament to how hard these biases are to overcome.