Fostering diversity and inclusion at Stitch

In my role as Director of People Operations at Stitch, I’m responsible for everything people-related, including traditional HR, employee engagement, and recruitment.

Though we’ve always been proud of our team, I found myself in an interesting position late last year when Philly called us out for having a staff that lacked minorities and underrepresented women. We’ve always valued diversity and inclusion, so how did this happen? This question led me to do lots of research, including speaking with half a dozen diversity and inclusion experts. Though I was confident that we could and would do better, we needed help to get us on the right track.

The Stitch team on launch day on August 1, 2016The Stitch team on launch day on August 1, 2016. This is also the picture that Philly called out in an article on December 27, 2016.

Diversity and inclusion is multifaceted issue, and there are lots of ways to make progress. After evaluating our strengths and weaknesses, I identified our recruiting and interview process as the best place to start. Over the past several months, we’ve revisited and redesigned every touchpoint we have with candidates to reduce unconscious bias, be more welcoming to folks from diverse backgrounds, and help determine whether there’s a mutual fit between each candidate and their role as objectively as possible. Additionally, we’ve started talking about the importance of diversity internally, and we’ve hired a consultant from Paradigm to train our team on unconscious bias later this month.

We’re not the world’s leading D&I experts. We’ve made mistakes, and learned from them, and will likely make new mistakes in the future. We’re committed to making a difference, and we hope that by sharing what we’re doing, we can inspire more companies to join the conversation.

Making unconscious bias conscious

Human beings are faced with approximately 11 million pieces of information at any given moment, but the human brain can consciously process only about 40. This leads the brain to create shortcuts and rely on past knowledge to make assumptions, which allows us to act and react without deliberately examining everything we’re doing.

While it’s impossible to eliminate unconscious bias — it’s a basic survival instinct — people can reduce its impact by recognizing that it exists and taking action to combat it. We’re addressing unconscious bias in our hiring process by ensuring that we’re focusing on the right things in the interview process, and by making the process blind to candidate demographics early on.

We moved to a structured hiring process to try to eliminate the “similar-to-me” effect that can creep into the hiring process. As defined by Greenhouse, our applicant tracking system, a structured hiring process embodies three core principles:

  • The ideal candidate is defined by the business objectives of the job.

  • A deliberate process and rubric is used to assess all candidates.

  • Hiring decisions are based on data and evidence.

By defining the criteria for an open position early on and building the interview process around that, we can ensure that each candidate is evaluated objectively and in a way that indicates whether or not they can do the job.

Our structured hiring process, step by step

The first step in our hiring process is to bring the hiring team together to create a rubric for the role. This can be done in person or in a shared document. We’re looking to define specifically what the individual will be responsible for, and, consequently, what skills they’ll need to get the job done. From there, we build the job description and begin to formulate the rest of the hiring process.

Once we start receiving applications, it’s time for us to review resumes. We used to filter heavily on resumes to decide which candidates to move forward, and then I’d schedule a call with them. Today, we try move as many people as possible past the resume review stage. If the rubric for the role includes non-negotiable experience requirements, then we filter out just those candidates who don’t meet the experience requirement. For example, in our recent content marketer hire, we needed candidates with at least one year of professional writing experience. We try to have the criteria at this stage be objective and quantitative.

Once we’ve decided which candidates to move forward, the next step is having them complete a small project that relates to the role for which they’re interviewing and utilizes the skills we’re looking for. An engineer might do a coding project, and a content marketing manager might write a blog post. Each project is designed to take two to three hours to complete, and we give applicants ample time to complete the project, because we know these folks may be working full-time, have kids to care for, and have other commitments. All candidates for the same role complete the same project, and the projects are not used for anything other than evaluating candidates.

Not every candidate is excited to complete a project before they’ve talked to anyone. When we send the project to candidates, we write an accompanying letter to explain why we’ve chosen this process. We explain that we’re trying to eliminate unconscious bias, and offer to answer any questions they might have. This excites some folks and disappoints others. It took some getting used to, but we’re comfortable with candidates dropping out at this stage. Ensuring that every candidate is treated fairly in our recruitment process is more important to us than pleasing everyone.

Once we’ve received the completed projects, I remove any information that could be used to identify the candidate (name, address, etc.), and pass them on to a subset of the hiring team. This group reviews and ranks the projects, and from these rankings we get our first idea of who we’d like to meet in person. I hop on the phone with each of these candidates, with the goal of answering any questions they have about us, and explaining to them everything they need to know about the position and our organization. Candidates can eliminate themselves at this stage, but I can’t eliminate them unless they have a strict requirement that won’t work for us, as in the case where, for instance, they need to work remotely and the role is onsite.

Bringing candidates onsite

As we start scheduling onsite interviews, there’s one more thing we take into consideration. We’ve implemented a Rooney Rule-like requirement for our onsite interviews. For every open position, we’ve resolved to interview onsite at least two individuals from groups that are underrepresented in our organization prior to making a hire. We’ve been fortunate that, since implementing our new hiring process, our candidate pool has been more diverse than ever. That said, if we find ourself in a position where we have six candidates, but none from an underrepresented group, we’ll keep looking until we’ve met this requirement.

For the onsite interviews, each candidate meets with several people in series. We try to make sure that each meeting, with the exception of the one with the hiring manager, involves at least two people on our staff. That helps eliminate unconscious perception bias — when one team member has a particularly strong reaction to a candidate, another who was in the same room at the same time can confirm or balance that perception.

The interviews are highly structured. The hiring team designs the questions we ask in advance, and each candidate is asked the same questions by the same team members. As with other aspects of the hiring process, these questions focus on the skills necessary to do the job; we use a mix of both situational and behavioral interview questions.

In addition to talking with team members, we have each candidate complete another small project onsite as a skill assessment. For example, every engineer candidate spends one hour pair programming. This is yet another way of focusing on whether an individual has the skills to do the job; it’s not about whether we’d like to grab a beer with them.

Once each interview has wrapped up and before we discuss the candidate, each member of the hiring team submits a scorecard for the candidate, which we create alongside the rubric defined in the initial meeting. The scorecard focuses on the attributes defined as necessary for the position, and specifically highlights the areas that our team was responsible for assessing. This process helps to eliminate our gut-feeling bias and allows hiring managers to make evidence-based decisions on why a candidate should or should not be hired.

Is it working?

The changes we’ve made to our hiring process have done what we hoped when we began down this road. We’ve gone through seven interview processes since June, and in all cases, the candidate pools we brought in for interviews were more diverse than those we saw before we adopted our new processes. Additionally, four of the seven individuals we’ve hired are from groups underrepresented in our organization.

The Stitch team at the company holiday party in December 2017.The Stitch team at the company holiday party in December 2017.

Of course we’re nowhere near done. Our plan is to continue to refine our interview process, and to continue to train all of our team members about unconscious bias and the importance of a diverse workforce. We still have lots of work to do on this front, and we’re excited to make more progress in 2018.