An Unused Resource in the Struggle for Greater Diversity in Tech?

As a technology manager, there is a resource I often ignore that I just realized could be incredibly value in the growing conversation about how we improve diversity in the world of technology work. I did a little searching to see if someone else had this same epiphany. If they have, they haven’t talked about it widely enough to show up after a few cursory web searches.

I am a cisgender, heterosexual, white male who manages a staff of only cisgender, heterosexual white men. I rightly am scrutinized by the rest of my organization, which is at least more gender diverse, in my recruiting and hiring practices. I listen and read a lot as a consequence and struggle to do better. We now include a diversity statement in all of job postings. We constantly think about where we circulate job postings to get them into more places visible to a greater diversity of candidates. We increasingly pay more attention to word choice to make our descriptions as accessible and attractive as possible. We are always thinking of what more we can do.

At the same time, my organization is growing. We have an ever increasing amount of work to get done and the funding to bring on more people to do it. In the past week or so, I posted three job openings for which I am actively recruiting (one for a less experienced candidate, one for a more experienced one, and one that isn’t necessarily a technologist.) I am just as closely scrutinized for recruiting more staff so that we can support our growing commitments.

The first set of candidates we have received are discouraging in terms of diversity. Only one or two are in any way diverse and definitely not along gender lines. We have selected two to pursue, neither of whom change the overall composition of my staff. I feel like a partial failure, that in moving ahead in terms of staff capacity I am falling that much further behind on improving the diversity of my staff. Worse, even if both of these candidates succeed and result in hires, I am still under pressure to hire one more, continuing the tension between capacity and diversity.

That pressure has me re-thinking a resource of which I am often skeptical: professional recruiters.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had good experiences with recruiters, both as a candidate and as a hiring manager. Those experiences have been in the minority however. Those recruiters are the ones who get that the best results are found through cultivating relationships, not about quantity of placements. Identifying the good recruiters unfolds through conversation and trust building which takes more time and effort. That investment hasn’t seemed worth it before this most recent up turn in the number of openings.

Regardless of how I feel about them, recruiters still contact me out of the blue all of the time. When you are easily identifiable as a hiring manager, it goes with the territory. Usually I just delete such contacts or send them to voice mail. As we have struggled even to get a decent pool of non-diverse candidates, I have been re-thinking that policy.

As I was considering how to make better use of recruiters and of the conundrum of hiring quickly or hiring diversely, I came up with a simple idea: accept every cold contact from a recruiter but respond with a set of standard questions.

  1. Do you have a diversity policy or statement?
  2. Can you demonstrate of track record of diverse placement?
  3. Are you experienced at placing candidates at non-profits?
  4. Can you place candidates in the greater Washington, DC area?

In my replies, I insist that I require an affirmative answer to all of these questions before talking further. Out of two contacts I’ve had since thinking of this response, it successfully filtered out one and engaged the other in a way that encouraged me. The first two questions took him off guard but he wrote them down with a promise to look into them and email me his firm’s answers.

I have been thinking a lot on those first two questions. (The last two questions are simply logistics of these particular opportunities.) In particular, I am slapping my forehead wondering why I never thought to ask them of every recruiter who contacts me.

Those web searches I mentioned at the outset. Most of what I found were statements from hiring organizations, the majority of them universities, institutions and a few larger corporations. There may be a more specific set of search terms than I was using that would reveal recruiters who specifically value diversity. I expect that if there was a non-trivial number of such firms, it shouldn’t take any particular skill at web searches to find them. I think there is an opportunity to raise the bar for technology recruiters.

From now on, I am going to ask those first two questions of every recruiter who contacts me, at this job or any other. I will ask whether I am currently hiring or not. I would love for as many of you who are reading this to do the same, if you are in an appropriate circumstance to do so.

Recruiting in technology is a huge business. For qualified candidates, placement fees are quite lucrative. Recruiters, even the good ones, are highly competitive. If we can get some fraction of the firms recruiting specifically for technology jobs to prioritize diversity, I suspect it could have a huge impact.

I think making such a change can start with just a couple of questions.

One Reply to “An Unused Resource in the Struggle for Greater Diversity in Tech?”

  1. Those seem like good questions.

    If you ever make it back to Penguicon, you might like to participate on a running panel I’ve been doing with Jer Lance and various others (depending on who’s available which years) about tech culture, hiring, and retention. Or Jer’s branching out into more directly tech-manager topics, and might like another co-panelist.

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