From the Front Lines: A New Approach to Diversity in Tech Hiring

This is the third article in our monthly series From the Front Lines. Each month we chat with a new talent acquisition leader to get insights into their experiences and the challenges they face when hiring engineers, developers, and other technical roles.

Solving for diversity gaps in the technical workforce remains one of the industry’s biggest mysteries. In our latest Women in Tech report, we found that women are closing the gender gap in the computer science field and are learning all the right programming languages, yet they are 3.5x more likely be in junior roles than their male counterparts. These findings reinforce diversity emerging as one of the biggest global recruiting trends to be on the lookout for in 2018.

Most companies take a standard approach when tackling diversity: establishing goals and implementing anti-bias training programs. But how many companies can actually stand by and defend the success of those strategies?

CommonBond, a big player in the student loan space, is taking a new 180-degree approach to diversity in tech. It’s incredibly counterintuitive and leaves many asking:

Why would any company looking to diversify their technical talent consider an approach that isn’t goal-oriented or program-driven?

A couple reasons:

  1. It’s human nature to march to the beat of your own drum. Many studies have found that strong-arming hiring managers into diversity tactics and training actually has the reverse intended effect. People tend to rebel to maintain their individual freedom. The Harvard Business Review reports that the positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can actually activate bias or spark a backlash. Such was the case when a former Google employee completed his diversity training and emerged enraged by the whole experience. The result was a 3,000-word memo bashing Google’s hiring philosophies and claiming that women have fewer tech jobs due to biological differences. By mandating diversity policies you can actually lose the sincerity of your intended outcome.
  2. Diversity programs can be just a band-aid. Putting diversity training and programs in place doesn’t solve for the inherent biases that already exist in your current recruiting process. You can train your recruiting team to avoid diversity and bias moving forward, but you should also take into account that most recruiting processes may be predisposed to discrimination. If you don’t take a step back to evaluate your current process, you’re likely just placing a band-aid on your diversity issues when putting training programs or goals in place.

How can you approach diversity for a successful outcome?

A simple concept: put a positive spin on it. The Harvard Business Review reports that companies are more likely to find success reducing bias by framing strategies in a more positive way, relinquishing the control tactics that are negatively associated with diversity programs that fail.

This is the approach CommonBond has taken on their path to a more diverse workforce. As a leader in the student lending space, CommonBond is disrupting how students pay back their educational loans by providing a marketplace with lower interest rates, simpler loan processes, and the ability to save more money while their loans are in repayment. Their workforce currently consists of 110+ employees, almost half of which are in technical roles. Over the years they’ve refined a hiring strategy that has allowed them to cut on-site interviews by 60% while still allowing them to grow 4x as fast.

So how is CommonBond able to grow quickly, while still focusing on diversity? Keryn Koch, VP of People, shared their unconventional approach at our latest HackerRank main() event in New York,

“While we deeply care about diversity and inclusion at CommonBond, we don’t believe in diversity goals. Simply achieving a goal of X women or X minorities will not lead us to become a more diverse and inclusive workplace. We believe that following best practices in recruiting—from writing the job description to developing a standardized interview process—will result in a more diverse talent pool.”

This philosophy starts at the top with a CTO who places high value on finding candidates with core values that strongly align with the company and its mission. They take a holistic approach when evaluating talent, looking beyond pedigree and background and focusing on proven skill and approach to problem-solving. But it’s not enough to find talent that will just get the job done, they look for candidates who are deeply interested in the company’s overall mission and passion for success. Keryn goes on to explain, “You really need to connect with the people you’re trying to find.” At CommonBond, part of their mission is that for every loan they pay off they provide a scholarship to a student in Ghana. This was once something they didn’t share as early on in the recruiting process, by presenting it upfront they’ve found that it engages the right people who are interested in making a difference with their technology.

Since updating their recruiting process with more standardization and implementing best practices, CommonBond has been incredibly successful. One piece of advice they received from a diversity expert: “Implement the right changes, and the results will follow.” Notice the advice didn’t include adhering to strict goals or training programs. And their results speak for themselves,

“Over the past quarter our team has hired 30 people, more than half of them were women…”
– Keryn Koch, VP of People

Many argue that only companies with big budgets can implement diversity initiatives that are actually effective. However, Keryn provided a few of the of the changes they’ve implemented that are low cost and don’t require a lot of resources:

  • Review your job specifications – With the use of free software applications, CommonBond analyzes what words they’ve used in their job specifications and how they performed against the demographic of people who applied for the role. One insight they found was the significant jump in women who applied for a role where the team was described as “passionate” vs. “killer”. The use of certain words can affect who you are attracting to apply.
  • Adjust your hiring criteria – One highly publicized statistic from an internal HP report found that men will apply for roles they are only 60% qualified for, whereas women will only apply if they are 100% qualified. It’s important to keep this in mind as you lay out your hiring criteria, a simple change like this can dramatically increase the number of women who are entering your hiring funnel.  

There are many different approaches you can take when tackling diversity in the tech industry. CommonBond has found success shifting their focus away from rigid processes and more in the direction of positive, people-oriented strategies. But whether you choose to take the goal-oriented approach or place a higher focus on a positive framework, you’re taking a step in the right direction. Recognizing that there is a problem and putting your best foot forward to fix it is one positive we can all get onboard with.

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