Inclusive recruitment at Substrakt

Author: Ash Mann

Over the past year we have made a number of changes to the way that we do recruitment at Substrakt.

These changes were driven by a desire to reach a broader range of potential candidates, for those candidates to feel like Substrakt was somewhere they could see themselves working (and wanted to), and to address any potential issues of unconscious bias in the way that we assessed candidates during the recruitment process.

In this post I’m going to detail some of the changes we made, both so that anyone else who may be considering what they can do to change their recruitment processes can see what has, and hasn’t, worked for us – and the effort involved.

We have published a separate post aimed at potential applicants which details what the process involves and what they can expect.

A few quick thanks: our work in this area has been, and continues to be, expertly guided by the brilliant Lexie Papaspyrou and, as Tech Talent Charter signatories, the Open Playbook has been an invaluable resource.

Reaching more people, and welcoming them

The first problem we were trying to solve is that we simply weren’t getting the diversity of candidates that we wanted.

Whilst there are undeniable diversity issues with the talent pipeline in the technology sector, we were experiencing an almost total lack of diversity in the people who were applying for jobs at Substrakt.

On reflection we believed that the cause of this was probably down to two main reasons a) by consistently advertising in the same places, and in the same way, we weren’t reaching a diverse group of potential candidates and b) even when we were reaching people who we’d like to apply for jobs at Substrakt, those people didn’t see Substrakt as a viable employment opportunity (for any one of a number of possible reasons).

Don’t do the same things and expect different results

To try and address this we understood that we had to change our approach.

There are numerous specific job boards, mailing lists and networks that you can engage with to reach more diverse candidates.

These specific networks are dedicated to black tech talent, women and non-binary people, parents returning to work, disabled people and more. These networks are, by their very nature, smaller and more focused than the ‘big’ job boards but they are out there.

We have seen success working with some of these networks alongside asking the recruiters we work with to focus specifically on engaging with a more diverse pool of candidates.

Words are important

As I mentioned above, we suspected that the problem was not just that we weren’t reaching the right people, it’s that we weren’t showcasing Substrakt as an attractive place for those people to work.

We reviewed the content on our website, the language in our job descriptions and ads, and the way that we structured and showcased our benefits.

This process made us realise that whilst there was no one big single issue that we could address there were lots of little things that, cumulatively, may have been putting people off.

We focused on making sure that things that had perhaps in the past just been good intentions, or not quite made it into “proper policies” were addressed head on. This resulted in the publishing of our EDI Vision Statement, which makes specific measurable commitments, and also resulted in us updating and improving our policies around parental leave, professional development, health and wellbeing allowances and flexible working.

We also realised we weren’t doing much of a job at all of talking about Substrakt as a place of work. Our vacancies page is consistently one of the most visited pages on the site (this is also true for many of our client sites), so by taking more care around how the content on this page (and across the site) describes Substrakt as a place where people work (rather than just an entity that produces work for clients) we’re giving ourselves a better chance.

When it came to our job ads there weren’t too many issues around biased language (there are lots of useful checkers you can run your job titles and ads through online) but on reflection we recognised that we weren’t using the right language to describe Substrakt’s culture, nor were we doing a good enough job of describing the type of person we wanted to apply.

Our focus was too granular, on very specific skills or experience and whilst it’d be very easy to come up with an excuse for why this was the case it was obviously excluding people, there is also lots of research to show that women are less likely to apply when you list out ‘required skills’ in this way. So we have switched to language which instead focuses on responsibilities and attributes.

Here are a couple of examples from the introduction to recent job ads – I’m not saying they’re perfect but we think they’re heading in the right direction:

We are looking for a friendly, diligent and knowledgeable developer to join our team. You will be working across our portfolio of work, building new websites and products, and maintaining live sites.

We are looking for a passionate, thoughtful design leader to join our team in the new role of Creative Lead. This person will be responsible for setting and maintaining design standards at Substrakt and will manage the people and processes involved in achieving this.

We have never required degrees or specific qualifications at Substrakt, but this too is an easy and obvious barrier that can be removed for most vacancies. Requiring a specific number of years of experience is also a fairly arbitrary threshold that will be making your applicant pool less diverse.

And last but not least, put the salary on all your job ads. “Competitive” isn’t good enough and again, will be putting people off. The Show the Salary Pledge campaign (of which we are signatory) has more information about this consideration.

Process is key

When it came to the recruitment process itself we were in the same position as I’d suspect many small and medium sized organisations are.

We had a loosely defined recruitment process that was really nothing more than a series of steps that the process followed, we hadn’t given this enough thought and there was a lack of ownership and intent around the whole process.

Unconscious bias is a very real consideration and we wanted to make sure that our recruitment process gave both us and the candidates a clear, consistent, considered and equitable experience.

Research has shown that some of the most effective ways to achieve this is by using skill-based assessment tasks and structured interviews in the recruitment process.

These considerations alongside removing bias from the language in your job ads, reviewing applicants in batches and, importantly, anonymising applications are all changes we have made to our recruitment process.

Skills-based assessment has proven to be easier for some roles (Developers) than others (Head of Sector Engagement, Support Manager, etc) but is something we are committed to.

Structured interviews have been quite a culture shift for us especially related to the change to anonymised CVs. Previously we would broadly have similar questions we’d ask everyone but also devote a significant amount of time to asking questions specific to each applicant. Whilst this is perhaps understandable, it also made objective comparison and assessment (and then feedback) almost impossible.

Structured interviews also mean that you can supply the questions to candidates in advance of the interview, which is a change we’ve made as it is shown to make interviews a less stressful experience for neurodiverse people in particular.

We’ve already talked about the changes we made to language in our job ads (and more widely) and reviewing applicants in batches is self-explanatory, but the final point of anonymising applications has perhaps been the most noticeable, and impactful, change for me personally.

Our brilliant Office & HR Manager, Laura, removes any identifying information from applications, as well as removing specific details of previous employers.

A few people have asked me why we hide previous employer information, quite simply it’s because of that thorny issue of unconscious bias – if you are truly assessing on skills and experience then who the job was done for should play a far less important role.

This is a particularly insidious issue in the cultural sector, where the inherent ‘weight’ of the big cultural brands often seem to count for more, yet it is these very organisations that are often the least diverse – which just ends up compounding the issue.

So Laura removes the lot, anything that indicates gender, age, ethnicity, social class, or educational achievement is scrubbed. Personally this shift has felt like it’s changed how I perceive applications, which is both intriguing and worrying and highlights the very real issues around unconscious bias.

Diverse voices

The final change I want to talk about is the interview panel itself. We realised that we weren’t always making this decision-making process as diverse as it could be, so we have changed who is in the interviews by ensuring that we have greater representation from across the company in terms of gender, ethnicity and seniority.

Dr Jennifer Eberhardt, who is a leading academic on bias, has noted that increasing the diversity of a panel does not necessarily improve the diversity of outcome for a hire (i.e. more women on panel do not necessarily = more women hired, because women also have unconscious biases against other women).

However, we think there is a reasonable hypothesis that more diverse panels can make candidates feel more at home and may therefore result in a person from a minority group performing better in the interview process and being more encouraged to consider the role.

And there IS evidence that shows homogeneous environments are actively unwelcoming and negatively impact diversity.

This change has required more internal preparation for each interview process so that everyone on the Substrakt side of the conversation understands what their role is and how they should expect to engage with the process, but again it is a relatively small change that feels like it’s already making a difference.

Cumulative and ongoing

I don’t think anything I’ve outlined here is especially complex or difficult. It doesn’t require any special skills or software.

However it does involve more time and it does demand more effort. But I’d argue that these are investments worth making regardless of the size of your organisation.

How much time and effort? The process of revising and rewriting the policies and identifying the changes we wanted to make was the result of several months of effort. This involved working closely with an expert EDI consultant and ensuring that we were doing the work to understand why we were making the changes, what our options were, and how we needed to roll them out.

The biggest commitment in time is each time we now decide to recruit, there is additional effort in writing the job ad, researching where to advertise, and running the assessment process. I’d say it’s realistic to quantify it as now taking double the amount of time it did previously, but this is something we’re committed to and doing something properly, with care, is always going to take longer.

Equally none of these changes, on their own, are going to make a big enough difference. It’s a question of adjusting every single element so that it enables your recruitment activities to reach and attract the broadest possible range of people.

Have we got it perfect? Absolutely not, we’re still a long way from where we want – and need – to be. But we have started down this path, and we are committed to continuing to learn and make the changes we need to make Substrakt the most welcoming and inclusive place for a truly diverse and representative team to work.

TL;DR & Useful reading

The key changes we’ve made are:

  • Changed our policies around the benefits we offer to our team to enhance annual leave, parental leave, health and wellbeing schemes, and professional development allowances.
  • Changed what we say and the way we say it in job ads to ensure we are removing any biased language and ensuring we’re not putting unnecessary barriers in place around specific skills or experience that aren’t actually needed.
  • Changed the way we talk about and portray Substrakt as a place of work to give a better sense of who we are and to demonstrate our culture and values.
  • Changed where we advertise our vacancies to reach specific groups of people who are underrepresented at Substrakt.
  • Changed the way we assess candidates so that it is consistent and structured.
  • Changed the way we run the interview process so that candidates have greater transparency about what we want to talk about, and who they will be talking to.
  • Changed who is in the interviews to make that environment more inclusive and welcoming.

There is an almost overwhelming amount of information out there on this topic, some helpful resources we’ve come across are: