How To Make A Less Racist, More Inclusive Job Listing

You may think your job listing sounds welcoming to people of color, but the wording can send a different signal.
There are sneaky ways the hiring process discriminates against diverse candidates, and it starts with language in the job listing.
There are sneaky ways the hiring process discriminates against diverse candidates, and it starts with language in the job listing.

A job listing is often a candidate’s first interaction with a prospective employer. And it may send subtle messages to candidates of color that their talents won’t be as welcome at the company as those of their white counterparts, regardless of what an equal opportunity statement may say.

More so than explicit racism, job seekers are likely to encounter coded language that prioritizes whiteness in the descriptions of the type of candidate a company is looking for, according to Nicole Sanchez, CEO of Vaya Consulting, a firm that advises companies on diversity and inclusion.

This can happen when companies advertise free beer and wine on tap, or promote a “work hard, play hard” culture of hanging out day and night with co-workers. “It’s hard to call it outright racism, but they are cultural signals,” Sanchez said. “As a person of color, I understand the kind of environment that I will have to navigate in order to be in this place.”

It can also be found in a preoccupation with appearance. “I’ve seen job listings that are like, ‘Do you care about your appearance as much as the work you do?‘” Sanchez said. Many people care about how they look in the workplace, but when you see this framing, “You know it’s a narrow definition of what ‘caring about your appearance’ looks like,” she said.

“These are the ways that people of color and Black folks in particular have learned to read between the lines about what the place is going to be like and what is going to be expected of them.”

Hiring managers will be in a better position to be more inclusive once they realize how, exactly, they are sending these messages. Here’s how to make a job listing that’s truly inclusive and draws a more diverse pool of candidates:

Get rid of education requirements.

Too many job listings are guilty of “degree inflation,” or the idea that credentialed employees are smarter and more productive than those without a degree.

Often the people who already hold these jobs are proof that a listing’s education requirements are not necessary. A Harvard Business School and Accenture analysis of 26 million job postings and surveys of human resource executives found that 67% of the job postings required a bachelor’s degree or higher, yet only 16% of workers already in those positions held such a degree.

The analysis also found that automated hiring tools like applicant tracking systems have excluded applicants with relevant experience simply because they lacked a college degree.

“Language is all culturally situated, language is political and it comes from our own backgrounds.”

- Nicole Sanchez, CEO of Vaya Consulting

Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit technology company that provides tools and services for artists, ended education requirements for job applicants a few years ago because the information was not relevant for the hiring process, said COO Tim Cynova.

“It tells us that they completed high school or have their bachelor’s degree or master’s degree, but not, ‘Can they do this job in finance at Fractured Atlas?’” Cynova said.

When companies drop education requirements, they get a more diverse pool of candidates who can bring more ideas to the table. “It is beneficial to a company to have people who were formally trained in one thing and have people who learned it themselves,” Sanchez said. “Now you are getting a diversity of how people approach the problem, and that’s great.”

Instead of education requirements, Cynova said, companies can take more time up front to interrogate what qualities candidates really need to have to succeed in this role, and then make it so that every question asked in the job posting and hiring process is tied to answering one question: “Does this candidate have the knowledge, skills and abilities that we’ve identified as part of this role to be successful?”

Don’t be too narrow with desired past experiences.

Narrowly defining the “desired experience” section can exclude underrepresented groups, said Ruchika Tulshyan, a diversity and inclusion strategist and author of “The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace.”

Take the years of experience wanted, or a requirement to have managed a big portfolio in a previous leadership role, for example. Since white people and men are more likely to have had that experience, job listings should either do away with those specific requirements or be expressly open to other leadership experiences beyond a certain prior position, she said.

“A lot of times when you hire for skills rather than exact fit, and when you actually list that in your job listing that you are specifically looking for certain skills but you are open to those skills being acquired in different industries or in a different context, then you are much more likely to be equitable,” Tulshyan said.

To make a job listing more inclusive, frame it around the problem that this new hire will be tasked with solving, and be less prescriptive about how you think the problem is going to be solved. For an office manager role, the listing could be framed as, “We want to make sure everybody who walks into our office feels comfortable and welcome. How would you do that?” Sanchez said. “Then lots of different people can see themselves in that job.”

Even for technical roles, there is room for flexibility with requirements. Sanchez said she’s seen companies make the mistake of listing every engineering language a person needs to know. Instead, they could list a couple of top-line languages, and make the decision that people can learn the rest, she said.

Watch how you describe the ideal job candidate.

Research has found that the language used to describe the ideal candidate can keep women from applying. Using historically male words like “ninja” ― a term common in tech industry listings ― or the need to “dominate” competition or be “best of the best,” for example, are known to turn women away from applying.

Sanchez said that when companies state they want workers to be hungry, for example, it reveals management’s privilege and lack of understanding that hunger is not a desirable characteristic. If they want a motivated worker, they should describe them as “someone who wants to succeed,” she said.

“Language is all culturally situated, language is political and it comes from our own backgrounds,” Sanchez said. “Our language in job descriptions ends up being more exclusive than we intend it to be because we have assumed again whiteness as universal, or that a middle-class or upper-middle-class white and educated understanding of this word is one everybody must share. And we know that’s not true.”

One more thing: Don’t rely on referrals to diversify your workforce.

People are susceptible to an affinity bias of hiring people whom they like, instead of the person who is best for the role. When your employees are already majority-white, wanting to hire “someone like us” can end up reinforcing the whiteness of your organization.

To fight that, Sanchez said it’s OK to consider referrals and recommendations from current staff or personal contacts, but to limit their power to securing an initial screening call. Beyond that, there there should be no indication that a candidate is a referral.

“If I know you and I know there’s a referral coming from you and I like you, well, now my bias is about you, not about the candidate,” she said. “If I don’t like you, the same thing happens.”

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