Setting Up Candidates for Success, and Other Actions for Allies

Each week, Karen Catlin shares five simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace and be a better ally.

Busy freelancer with laptop and notepad in kitchen
Busy freelancer with laptop and notepad in kitchen
Photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova

1. Share interview questions ahead of time

As I read Dr. Erin Thomas’ most recent Sunday morning Twitter thread about inclusion, I found myself thinking deeply about one of her points:

“For job candidates, stop trying to stump them arbitrarily. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. Do all you can to prepare them for the hiring process so you can see the very best of what they can do vs. how well they can manage performance anxiety.”

Dr. Thomas included a link to a study on performance anxiety in tech sector interviews, which found that a widely used approach of having a candidate solve a problem on a whiteboard in front of others excludes certain groups, including women. By contrast, it advantages those who can afford to spend weeks or months training for the technical interview, rather than for the actual job they’d be doing.

I retweeted it, and Sam Phillips, a CTO, replied:

“An HR team at a previous employer had the policy of emailing interview questions to candidates in advance… I was incredulous when I found out. Then we did the interview and I realised it was daft to have the interview as a memory recall exercise, and I’ve done it ever since.”

Are you doing all you can to set up your interview candidates for success?

2. Push back on concerns that women’s events exclude men

Put yourself in the shoes of a conference organizer. As part of your planning, you made sure to have a Code of Conduct so that all attendees feel included and safe. You created a networking event just for women, who are underrepresented in your field. Now, your conference is happening. You’re excited!

Then you check your messages and find that an attendee filed a complaint that the women-only networking event is exclusionary of men.

This situation happened last week. I learned about it second-hand from a tech leadership group I’m in. Someone provided a perfect response and gave me permission to share it with all of you:

“Any ‘x-only spaces’ are a response to a need or a gap from the currently available options. Our women’s only networking event is in response to building a safe, comfortable space for women and their voices that they might not otherwise have available. We hear your complaint but do not plan on changing this event.”

What a perfect response if someone complains to you that an event for an underrepresented group is exclusionary of those in the majority.

3. Clarify who’s welcome in women-only spaces

If you’re organizing a women’s event, employee resource group, or online community, think about your audience. Do you want to explicitly include trans women? (I believe trans women are women, but they may not know if they’d be welcome.) Or, instead of a women-only space, do you want to create one for underrepresented genders, including women and non-binary people?

I appreciate the language used by a group that I belong to. Originally started as a women’s group, it changed over time to be inclusive of non-binary people. We say,“If you identify as a woman or as non-binary, you’re welcome here.”

Note: I modified this section after the initial publication to reflect feedback I received.

4. Ask “What made you say that” when witnessing racism

Last week, Edinburgh-based IT Recruiter Kamran Chaudhry shared an example of racism in the workplace. After he emailed a candidate to give them an interview for a job, the candidate wrote back, “no thank you your name has put me off.”

As I’ve shared before, racism in the workplace is real, folks. Believe people when they tell you about it. Look out for it yourself. As an ally, push back when you witness racism with a “What made you say that?” or “What led you to that conclusion?” Force them to explain their racist thinking and behavior.

Of course, be thankful if a candidate reveals their racist tendencies during the interview process. I’m confident that you’ll find a better candidate, one who has the skills to do the job AND can contribute to a more inclusive workplace.

Note: In an earlier version of this article, I recommended asking “Why did you say that?” A reader kindly pointed out that “why” questions can put someone on the defense, and suggested these “what” questions (now reflected avove) would be a better approach. I’m thankful for their feedback. Being an ally is a journey, and one that I’m on myself!

5. Call out sexist marketing messages

Now I get to state what should be obvious. Sexist images don’t belong in marketing material. I remember hearing about the 2018 InfoSec World conference where Security Weekly handed out a bumper sticker that said “code naked” with a pinup silhouette. (There were T-shirts, too.)

As someone said in an online discussion about the sticker, “I might have thought those were awesome … when I was 14.” Spot on.

Last week, I heard about another sexist image in tech marketing. At the KubeCon Europe Conference, an employee of Dell tweeted a sexist marketing message. To their credit, they apologized soon after it was pointed out.

But here’s the thing. Marketing messages from big companies go through layers of approval. Who wasn’t paying attention? Or did someone point out the sexism but was overruled?

Regardless, let’s be sure to keep our eyes open and call out sexist or otherwise offensive imagery in our organization’s marketing.

That’s all for this week. Please note that because of the Labor Day holiday here in the U.S., there won’t be a newsletter next Friday. I’ll be back in your inboxes again on September 11. In the meantime, I wish you strength and safety as we all move forward,

— Karen Catlin, Founder and Author of Better Allies®

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