Skills, Titles, and Stereotypes: Rethinking Rejection Through the Lens of Unconscious Bias

Skills, Titles, and Stereotypes: Rethinking Rejection Through the Lens of Unconscious Bias

Unconscious Bias:

The tendency of us as humans to act in ways that are prompted by a range of assumptions and biases that we are not aware of.   This can include decisions or actions that we are not consciously aware of, as well as hidden influences on decisions and actions that we believe are rational and based on objective un-biased evidence and experience.  Unconscious bias can be present in organisations and groups as well as influencing the behaviours and decisions made by individuals.
University of Edinburgh: Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

Google did another round of layoffs here in the valley last week. Unfortunately, The stream of layoffs has not abated in this part of the world. Every month, another set of news of this tech company or that tech company laying off people graces the headlines of our local news channels and papers. The silver lining in all of this that I see, however, is that it’s January. And with that, a fresh budget to start the year anew. With that budget comes some hope, a bit of hiring that so many laid-off people are eagerly anticipating.

There’s a question I want to ask amid all these layoffs, job posts, phone screens, and applications. First, to the recruiters: Do you reject people because of unconscious bias? By bias, I don’t immediately refer to the DE&I kind of bias that people typically equate to, like race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, and the like.

Rejected Letters imageI’m talking about biases brought about by certain assumptions or behaviors we have learned socially at work, for example. Let me recount a story that happened to an internal recruiter and me. There was an opening for a head of engineering, and I was ecstatically recommending someone I had worked with. This person was at the forefront of many practices people are doing (or trying to do) today. He had created Continuous Integration / Continuous Delivery pipelines long before it became a thing in the agile world (about a decade before Jez Humble’s seminal book on Continuous Delivery).  Over the years, he’s managed to steer large organizations towards better ways of reliable delivery. Decades ago, he was a full-time employee but shifted to consulting work over the years since he and his family lived in multiple locations. I knew he would be suitable for the position, and after talking with him about how it was a permanent position, he said he found it compelling that he would apply for it. I sent his resume as an internal referral. (By the way, he finally has a book on DevOps out and is the only person I know who has solved the problems of SRE overload – without having to hire more SREs.)

I contacted the recruiter about a week later because I (and my friend) had yet to hear back. I wanted to find out where in the pipeline he was. When I asked about the person I had recommended, the recruiter immediately said, “Oh, I rejected him. He’s a consultant.” And my immediate question back was, “Why?” The recruiter responded, “He’s a consultant – he doesn’t have real-world experience. We want people who actually work for companies.” My mouth proverbially dropped because he had a list of marquee clients that anyone would envy if you looked at his resume. He even worked with major governments who were trying to get their IT strategy in place.

I couldn’t convince the recruiter no matter what I said because of this internal, unconscious bias, namely that consultants didn’t do real work. My friend knew it was a full-time position and was interested in it. He knew he wouldn’t be a consultant if hired and was okay with that. However, due to the pressures of what people expect certain people to be, unconscious bias crept in at the resume screening stage. He didn’t have a chance. (And after more than a year, a new VP of Engineering has not shown up.)

The other form of unconscious bias comes from the job seeker side. For job seekers: Do you immediately reject a potential job listing because the title doesn’t match what you’re looking for or because the posting lists several skills you don’t have?

Not having all the skills or the title and discounting the job listing is another form of unconscious bias. You also might be experiencing impostor syndrome, where a little voice in your head is saying to yourself, “I can’t possibly do this.” or “One day…maybe.” Let me ask you – what’s the worst thing that can happen if you respond to the job listing? You don’t get a callback. It’s the same result when you don’t apply to it at all. A lot of research out there shows that the biggest regrets in life that people have are the things they didn’t do, as opposed to the things they did. If you do something that doesn’t turn out the way you wanted, then at least you know you have tried. You won’t be thinking later on, “I wonder what would have happened if I…”

Let me tell you a happier story, this time, about me. Years ago, I was laid off (again, a downturn was starting). After a couple of weeks of searching for a new job, I saw this listing for a VP of Engineering position at a tiny start-up in the computer animation space. My interest was piqued because computer graphics and animation have always been a passion of mine since college, having done all my senior thesis projects around computer graphics. I even applied to Pixar during my senior year, when Pixar was a hardware company, not an animation company. (Who remembers that? Sadly, I didn’t get it back then.) I wanted to check out what the company was about and what they were looking for in a VP.

Although I had yet to have the title of VP of Engineering under my belt, I realized that I had a majority of the skills that they were looking for. At that time, the only related title I had was that of an engineering manager. But even though I didn’t have the VP title, I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I knew I had the skills and the experience (to a degree), except for the tile. With a wish to lady luck and a little bit of brashness, I applied. To hell with the VP of Engineering title, I told myself. The only thing I had to lose was not getting a callback, and I was fine with that.

I was ecstatic when, lo and behold, I got a phone screen a few days later. I managed to go through the phone screen quite well, and not once was the title mentioned. A week later, I was even happier to get a callback for a full round of interviews at their office.

In the end, I got the job. I didn’t get the title of VP of Engineering, mind you. I came in as Technical Program Manager for the engineering department. Because I didn’t have the title, the CEO continued to hold onto the reins, leading engineering, while I had to prove myself.  And prove to them I did. Within three months, I got the Engineering Manager title. And a year later, he promoted me to VP of Engineering. The job turned out to be one of the most fun, most challenging jobs ever. More than four years flew by so fast, and I accomplished, learned, and grew so much before I decided to pursue another opportunity much closer to home (I was getting tired of the 2+ hour commute. This was before remote or hybrid work was even considered.)

After being in the company for a few years, while I was still working there, I asked several folks who interviewed me a few questions out of curiosity. I asked them who I was up against and what made them choose me. They said that I was up against a candidate who had the VP of engineering title under his belt. When they were deciding who to hire, it came down to me and him. And what won them over? One of my answers stood out (Well, to be honest, my answer was more of a question.) When they proposed a particularly complex problem to me during the interview and asked how I would address it, I immediately responded without hesitation. I asked them, “Well, what outcomes are you after? There are so many potential outcomes that you can shoot for. And depending on the outcomes you want, I can offer a bunch of options that can lead towards various outcomes. It’s not a question of doing something. It’s a question of what the business is trying to achieve by solving this problem.” That answer sealed the deal for them.

Rethinking Rejection

So, if you find yourself screening and rejecting resumes as a recruiter, or if you find yourself going through and rejecting job postings as an applicant, ask yourself these questions (self-retrospect) if you find yourself saying “No”:

  • What’s my reason for rejecting this?
  • Is it a valid reason, or are there underlying beliefs and assumptions that I use to reject?
  • Could these assumptions and beliefs be unconscious bias on my part?

Be honest. I suggest taking 30 minutes and writing down the answers to each question one by one, then reviewing them. You might be surprised at what you wrote down.

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