Top 8 Diversity Killers – Stealth Assessment Areas That Hurt Diversity Hiring

The diverse are often dropped after failing assessments on minor factors, not because of overt discrimination during hiring. Yes, almost every organization today sets high goals for diversity hiring. Unfortunately, I find that most fail to meet their diversity hiring goals, not because of major institutional discrimination. But instead, due to a multitude of seemingly minor “under the radar” factors. I have further discovered that many of these “diversity killer” factors occur during interviews. So in my view, it makes sense for every organization to begin studying and evaluating the different assessment areas that occur during interviews.

Before you can fix them, you must first identify which specific interview assessment areas where diverse candidates are most likely to be significantly downgraded. The data from your study will almost certainly reveal that diverse candidates are routinely either marked down or knocked out completely during a handful of seemingly minor assessment actions. I call them “stealth assessment areas” because most involved in recruitment barely notice them even though they are frequently used. And as a result of flying under the radar, there is seldom any attempt to improve them. So over time, each will continue to be almost completely unnoticed and therefore un-managed. It’s also important to note that not all stealth assessment factors cause equal damage. The stealth diversity killing factors that usually have the most impact include fit, body language, lack of interviewer training, tardiness, and the handshake. The most impactful diversity assessment areas are listed below. When taken together, 90% of the contributing factors result in only a small unacceptable percentage of diverse candidates getting hired. 

A Quick Illustration – Of The Subtle Unconscious Biases That Can Hurt A Diverse Candidate

Perhaps an example will make the impact of these diversity killers clearer. A diverse black woman candidate shows up for her interview. And after reviewing the hiring manager’s extemporaneous notes after the interview has concluded. It is clear that this male interviewer immediately began to deduct points because of several “subtle missteps” that are likely not directly related to the candidate’s ability to do the job. To start with, she didn’t know it, but she was already screened out before the interview even started because she was 12 minutes late (her South African culture doesn’t emphasize being on time). Next, she lost 10 points out of 100 when she consciously refused to shake hands with the male interviewer (her religion doesn’t allow touching males). Also, she showed a lack of interest and lost 10 points by not maintaining eye contact (her culture/religion expects women to act subserviently in power situations with males). In addition, she lost 10 points by not asking any questions (another subservient cultural norm). And finally, regardless of her accumulated points, she was instantly eliminated for lack of “fit” (because she was wearing a full-length burqa, which is a form of religious/cultural expression), which made her negatively stand out when every other candidate wore standard business attire. The net result would be that because of unconscious biases, she would have lost 30 interview points and would miss the cut because of her lost points during the handshake, because of a lack of eye contact, and her asking no questions). Even if she had survived the final cut for interviews, she would have been eliminated because of her two automatic “knockout factors” actions (i.e., not fitting the team and being late).

The Top 8 Stealth Diversity Killer Assessments That Must End

All interviews are problematic. And that fact is reinforced by Google research that found that unstructured interviews are no better than a coin flip in predicting a candidate’s future on-the-job success. But their research didn’t go far enough because it failed to identify each of the elements of most interviews (whether structured or not) that are common “diversity killers.” In my experience, this omission on their part (and by many others) is part of the reason why most organizations haven’t met their diversity goals. Below is a list of what I have found across all organizations to be the 8 most common and impactful diversity killers. The article notes the top four factors with the highest impact. However, in the list below, each of the 8 diversity killer factors is listed in the order they occur during the typical interview process.

Diversity killer #1 – Penalizing late arrivals means the rejection of diverse candidates.

Although it only happens to a small percentage of diversity candidates. This factor ranks #4 in impact because it is often an instant candidate “knockout factor.” If you have traveled to over 65 countries as I have. You already know that arriving at a precise time is a phenomenon found mostly in heavily industrialized nations, where 100% on-time expectations may be the norm. However, interviewers must realize that punishing those that are late to interviews is a form of “unconscious bias” (e.g., yielding to the unfounded mental belief that “those people” are always late). This exclusion will unknowingly hurt candidates from different cultures,  where they learn to see no problem with businesspeople being routinely late. It’s a fact that “Whether people arrive on time, a little late or extremely late varies widely country to country” (especially in candidates whose families came from France, South Africa, Spain, Greece, Ecuador, and the Philippines). And in some cases (like in France) for some events, “arriving on time is considered rude.” 

Punishing candidates for being late may also likely disproportionately hurt the economically disadvantaged who usually work in hourly jobs. For people of color, there is even an acronym “CPT,” which was highlighted on NPR. This offensive phrase supports “the idea that for brown people, late is a synonym for “on time.” Because as hourly workers, it will usually be especially hard for people of color to leave work at their current job early. So through no fault of their own, their limited time window often makes it much more likely that they will be late to an interview. It’s also a mistake to assume that being late for an interview is an indication of future tardiness. Because the interview is a unique “one-time event.” The candidate won’t have the same established routine that results in them seldom being late to their current job.

Overall, this knockout factor is unfairly applied to only interviewees. For example, your hiring team will occasionally arrive late for interviews when their previous meeting lasted longer than expected (and you often do not record or punish this tardiness). So the best practice is to prohibit minor tardiness from ever being a knockout factor. Next, stop penalizing minor lateness or make it crystal clear upfront to all candidates that “being on time” is one of the primary interview assessment criteria.

Diversity killer #2 –The innocuous handshake greeting can hurt diversity candidates.

This assessment step occurs in nearly every interview. It is the #5 most impactful stealth factor. A single handshake error at the beginning can create a negative impression that might continue throughout the interview. Unfortunately, some handshakes will vary from the expected. Diverse candidates from different cultural backgrounds will shake hands in multiple distinct ways, or they don’t do it at all. In addition, figuring out the right type of handshake to provide for each diverse candidate will likely make each interviewer uncomfortable even before the interview begins. The most effective handshake solution is to demand continuous social distancing to reduce the chance of handshakes or just completely prohibit handshakes. The next best alternative for in-person interviews during Covid is to have the interview room and its entrance physically set up so that the probability of a handshake occurring is almost zero. 

If you can only do one thing© – begin collecting copies of each interviewer’s notes to determine which positive and negative factors were significant enough to be covered in their notes. 

Diversity killer #3 – Icebreaker jokes can hurt diverse candidates.

Perhaps the silliest of the common elements in an interview is beginning the interview with an “icebreaker joke,” which is an unneeded practice that often hurts diverse candidates. First, because diverse candidates often find the content of many of these jokes to be either insensitive or insulting. They also confuse many diverse candidates from different cultures simply because these jokes seem out of place. The best practice is to prohibit all interviewers from formally inserting any jokes during any part of the interview.

Killer #4 – Body language assessments will hurt diverse candidates.

There are so many advocates for this assessment approach. Its widespread use makes it the #2 most impactful diversity killer. The practice can result in discrimination and losing points because diverse candidates will often sit, move and act differently because of their cultural background. And that loss of points is primarily because of “the body language expectations” frequently used as “the ideal benchmark.” In most cases, they reflect European manners and their associated expected body actions. Body language assessment is especially damaging to women, different religions, the elderly, and the disabled. The common BL areas where diverse candidates lose the most BL points include a lack of eye contact, fidgeting, and a body posture that many assume reflects a lack of interest or passion. The only real solution to this type of discrimination is showing interviewers that body language doesn’t predict on-the-job success. Or to forbid this BL assessment practice completely. You can find more about the discriminatory problems associated with body language here.

Killer #5 – Brainteaser interview questions hurt diversity

Unfortunately, the “brainteaser question” is often included in interviews. These questions require interviewees to answer an unusual or abstract question to determine how they solve complex problems. An example would be: “You need to measure out four gallons of water, but you only have a three-gallon jug and a five-gallon jug. How do you measure out four gallons exactly?” Asking these questions can lead to discrimination because the right answer usually reflects the type of abstract thinking that may only be used by those who take and do well on SAT college admission tests. These complex brainteaser questions are, of course, inappropriate for jobs that don’t require strategic problem-solving. And because these types of questions are so outside what most diverse candidates expect when they are asked, they may reduce the confidence level of many diverse candidates. Sometimes they may even scare and unhinge the usually unprepared diverse candidate, so their interview performance is negatively impacted during the rest of the process. The best practice is to prohibit the use of brainteaser questions completely because they cause so many problems and don’t accurately predict new-hire success. 

Killer #6 – Fit assessment is the top discriminator.

A lack of team or organizational fit is often used as a primary candidate “knockout factor,” it ranks #1 among diversity killers. The definition of fit is that you act and value the same things that the rest of the team does. Unfortunately, hiring everyone that thinks and acts completely in line with your current team will likely lead to a devastating case of “groupthink.” In almost all cases, fit and diversity conflict because the very definitions of innovators and diversity are based on the fact that the candidates “actually act differently.” The assumption that fit assessment is a valid approach ignores that most candidates can easily and quickly adapt to the new team’s culture. In addition, in practice, the definition and the assessment criteria for assessing fit varies so much that they simply should never be used. The best practice is to instead focus on “diversity adds,” which are the benefits that each diversity hire will provide. You can find more about the discriminatory problems associated with fit assessment here. Incidentally, a lack of fit also parallels another common discriminatory rejection factor. Which is that “coworkers don’t approve” of this diverse candidate. 

Killer #7 – A lack of interviewer training hurts diversity hiring.

Because having no recent interview training is the norm. This diversity killer factor ranks #3 in impact. Recruiting leaders must realize that to minimize discrimination, every interviewer must thoroughly know and understand all the recommended (and not recommended) assessment approaches to prevent unconscious biases from influencing any hiring decision. Unfortunately, it’s also true that managers that have not recently gone through interview training are more likely to use the weaker and more discriminatory unstructured interview approach. The untrained are also much more likely to use the 8 listed “diversity killer” candidate assessment approaches with no data to demonstrate their correlation with new hire performance. The best practice is to require and track every six months when any interviewer reviews their organization’s online interview educational materials.

Diversity Killer #8 – Don’t assess candidates in areas that are best assessed outside the interview.

Many things simply can’t be accurately assessed during interviews. For example, often not having the appropriate personality is, unfortunately, often a primary knockout factor. This is problematic because most managers have no idea or data revealing the desirable types of employee personalities. And with a particular personality type that will most likely succeed and fail in this job. Interviewers should also be educated that it’s almost impossible to assess a candidate’s personality during their interview accurately. Finally, realize that diverse candidates are especially hurt when the personality they reveal during the interview doesn’t exactly “match” the desirable personality of most departing employees. Another area that should not be assessed during the interview is emotional intelligence. EQ can be discriminatory because it is based on an American/Anglo model of behavior that often discounts the skills and actions of innovators and candidates from diverse backgrounds and cultures. The best solution for most diverse candidates is to forbid personality, EQ, and IQ assessments, especially during interviews.

Improve Diversity Hiring By Identifying The Top Diversity Killers

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to minimize or eliminate any of these eight subtle diversity killers. Until you first identify the knockout factors that are impacting diverse candidates. Next, you must identify the specific areas where diverse candidates are disproportionately losing interview points. To get that information, I recommend using one or more of the following proven “diversity killer identification approaches.” In this list, the simplest to implement approaches are provided first.

  • Review written interview notes – this best identification practice begins by requiring all interviewers to take written notes. And even if you don’t require note-taking, you should still collect all of the available notes at the end of each interview. Then review them to identify both the positive and negative areas covered in the notes. Particularly look for written comments in the notes in each of the diversity killer areas. Pay special attention to the relevant comment contents underlined, circled, or followed by one or more question marks.
  • Require interviewers to use an interview assessment checklist – the best practice is to require each interviewer to utilize a prepared candidate assessment checklist. And then to have it turned in after the interview. The checklist must deduct points in the common “diversity killer areas” like body language, fit, tardiness, dress, etc.
  • Interview the hiring manager – when diversity candidates are interviewed. Make it a practice to ask a sampling of hiring managers to participate in an interview where recruiters ask the hiring manager to verbally identify the positive and negative factors (and why) that resulted in a diverse candidate losing points.
  • Utilize a “mystery shopper” – if you’re really bold, consider hiring one or more diverse people to assume the role of a candidate. And then have them purposely act “outside the norm” in several common diversity killer areas. And then use the interviewer’s notes to determine if, where, and why they lost points and if any of it was discriminatory.

Final Thoughts

Though you might have initially thought that these 8 subtle interview factors wouldn’t significantly impact diversity hiring. After you have taken the time to identify and then track the negative impacts of these diversity killers (by using interview notes), you will know for certain which factors in your organization have become common diversity knockout factors. And also which killer factors result in points being deducted disproportionately for diverse candidates. Over time, from this data, you will learn specifically how candidates of color, women, the disabled, and international candidates are among those that are most negatively affected by these “right under your nose” diversity killer assessment factors. Over time, you should track how minimizing these diversity killer factors increases your organization’s overall new-hire diversity. It will aid in improving your organization’s performance in multiple strategic areas, including recruitment, retention, product development, the level of collaboration, and the level of customer service that you can provide for years to come.

Author’s Note

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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