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Writing inclusive job adverts
- Rouan Wilsenach
I recently spent some time helping a startup set up their technical hiring process. Diversity and inclusion are important to me and I love working at inclusive companies, so I wanted to make sure the hiring process was as inclusive as possible to help us build a diverse team.
Here are the highlights of what I learned about inclusive job adverts.
Be explicit about your desire to be inclusive
Here's an easy win. Say somewhere in your job advert that you're open to applicants from different backgrounds. This template can get you started:
[Company Name] is an equal opportunity employer. We celebrate diversity and are committed to creating an inclusive environment for all employees. We welcome applications from those typically underrepresented in tech.
Don't pretend your company is more inclusive than it is. Don't make any wild claims. Just say you'd love to hear from folks who are underrepresented – it makes a big difference to whether someone reading your job ad is likely to apply.
Optimise for clarity and transparency
What does it take for someone to go from reading your job advert to clicking "Apply"? Turns out that folks from underrepresented groups are less likely to apply for a job when the job description doesn't clearly set expectations. Here are some areas where you want to make sure you provide as much clarity as possible:
- The job application process. This includes what the steps are, how long they take and how long the applicant will need to wait for feedback.
- What the role entails. What will the successful candidate's average day look like?
- What does the company do? What is the culture like?
- Benefits and compensation
- Constraints or deal-breakers. For example, is the job remote-friendly? Do you need to live in a specific country?
Don't over-specify requirements
We've all seen the classic bulleted list of requirements:
- Master's degree in Computer Science
- Test-driven development
- 90s Sitcom Trivia
- AWS InfiniDash
How is a person looking at this list supposed to make sense of it? Do they need to have done all of it in order to be considered? What if they're super-experienced with Node and React but haven't used Redux? Are they a bad hire?
The problem with exhaustive lists of requirements is that they facilitate self-selection: the process where a candidate says to themselves "I don't meet the requirements" and doesn't apply. Research shows that women are less likely to apply for job adverts where they don't match all the listed requirements. Is Redux experience really something worth losing a great candidate over?
Rather have a short list of the requirements that really matter. Karen Catlin recommends picking the five skills your candidate truly needs and including only those. She also advises that you avoid extra-curricular requirements like a well-populated GitHub profile, as these unnecessarily filter out great candidates.
Describe experience instead of prescribing it
What makes a software engineer experienced? This question is surprisingly easy to answer wrong. I've worked with self-taught engineers who can code circles around some folks that have an M.Sc. in Computer Science. Ten years of experience could be ten years of doing the same thing repeatedly and learning nothing. Someone else might have learned everything they need to know in a few short years, while working with world-class engineers.
In the job adverts I put together, I tried an experiment. Instead of prescribing professional experience, I described it. Here's what I mean:
Traditional prescription of experience:
- At least a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science or related field
- 5 years of software development experience
- At least 2 years of experience working with relational databases
My experiment: a description of experience level
This example is for what you might call a "mid-level" engineer
- There is a technical stack in which you feel confident delivering features
- You have a broad base of engineering skills and have started to deepen your knowledge in one or two areas
- You're able to contribute to technical conversations about how to solve problems
- You ask questions about whether you're building the right thing, rather than just about how you're building it
- You've made some technical mistakes and learnt from them
This way, you're building a clear picture of where a person should be at in their career. You're talking about how you might judge someone's experience, rather than providing a box-ticking experience. This approach lets the candidate see what's important to you. If you've got well-articulated descriptions of your company's job grades or salary bands, you might find something there you can re-purpose. As a bonus, this may make salary negotiation fairer because the job requirements will be aligned with your internal promotion and pay processes.
It is also worth including some wording that encourages folks to apply even if they don't meet all the listed requirements.
Use some objective analysis
Turns out people have done some research into the kind of language turns people away from job adverts. For example, the words we use are subtly "gender-coded". The research shows that you'll turn women away if your job description that is full of masculine-coded words.
There's a great online tool you can use to highlight gender-coded language in your job description. If you have too much masculine language, you can spend a little time rewording things to be more inclusive.
For the startup I helped, it turned out the job adverts were "strongly masculine-coded". Some example words included: "leading", "competitors" and "decide". Remember that none of the words are inherently bad. It's just that, once you have enough of them, your description starts to put people off applying for your job. Rather drop them and appeal to a broader audience. As a plus, the research shows the number of "feminine-coded" language in a job description has no impact on the number of male applicants.
Ask for feedback
Okay, so you've spent some time improving your job advert. Now test it. Reach out to your network and find some people who match the demographic you're trying to reach. Show them your job adverts and ask them how it makes them feel. Implement their suggestions. They'll also let you know if you've said something silly.
Better job adverts lead to better candidates
Turns out the trick to attracting applicants from underrepresented backgrounds is simply to write a better job description. If you want to attract the many fantastic software engineers from underrepresented backgrounds, you need to put in a bit of work and create a better job advert. Be clear, be concise and be objective.
I'd recommend you read The “Better Allies” Approach to Hiring. It's a great resource, with practical tips (checklists, even) for making your overall hiring process more inclusive.