DEI and recruitment: how hiring processes can be more inclusive

Dec 22, 2022

11 mins

DEI and recruitment: how hiring processes can be more inclusive
Jessica Beebe

Multimedia journalist living and working in New York City

Inclusivity is a central part of the conversation on recruiting. Inclusive recruiting is meant to eliminate as much bias as possible when considering job applicants for open roles. While formal diversity recruiting efforts have certainly climbed among employers in recent years, individuals nevertheless continue to possess unconscious biases that affect how they interact with other people; this includes how hiring managers interact with applicants. So, implementing inclusive hiring strategies has become a critical part of the recruiting process, as doing so can help workplaces broaden their pools of job candidates, opening up opportunities for a diverse array of people.

Linnea Bywall focuses her career on the value of inclusivity in recruiting. Bywall is Head of People at Alva Labs, a platform for candidate assessment with operations based in Stockholm, Sweden. During her nearly four years at Alva Labs, which functions with the purpose of creating a fair and data-driven recruitment process, Bywall has run everything human resources-related: attracting and hiring talent, onboarding employees, and growing teams, among many other responsibilities. Bywall—who is also a licensed psychologist—embraces the company’s mission to help teams and candidates effortlessly discover their next perfect match. Alva Labs has combined advanced machine learning with science and research to create a digital hiring platform focused on psychometric testing; the platform helps recruiters qualify and compare job candidates without taking in any stereotypes surrounding race, culture, or gender.

Bywall maintains a personal passion for updating and improving the recruiting process around the world. She sees cover letters as a thing of the past and embraces the notion of hiring talent in a fully objective way. We spoke with Bywall about her thoughts on recruiting and what job candidates might want to do to make sure they choose workplaces that value inclusivity and diversity.

Can you give me a brief overview of what your role is like as Head of People at Alva Labs?

I’ve been here for three and a half years. I came in as employee number 14—now we’re at 75. As for my background, I’m a psychologist from the start. I worked with recruitment and leadership development before I joined Alva. Here, I run everything people-related, so attracting, hiring, onboarding, developing, retaining, offboarding … I’m also involved a lot in our business cadence planning. I’ve worked in recruitment since the beginning of my career, but this is my first HR role. So, I have a lot to learn in some areas, and I can lean back on experience in others.

Am I correct in saying that Alva Labs is an online hiring tool that helps recruiters look at comparing job candidates in an unbiased way?

We would describe it as a candidate’s assessment. We want to help create a fair and efficient job market, both for candidates and for companies. We want to help organizations find great talent in a fair way. We want to help candidates find a good job, in an efficient way.

What are some of the ways that Alva tries to eliminate bias from the hiring process?

We offer psychometric assessments—logic tests and personality tests. We also offer a foundation to run structured interviews in the hiring process. And the newest addition to our product is coding tests. I think the common denominator is to offer scientifically-manufactured tools and methods that will compare all candidates in an equal way.

What I mean by this is, we want to create a much more data-driven approach, where all candidates go through the same process and are evaluated on the same criteria because that will let us make much more informed decisions, but also much more fair decisions. This is in contrast to traditional recruitment, which is a lot of resume screening, reading cover letters, and doing very gut feeling-based interviews, where there’s a lot of data showing that all candidates aren’t treated equally. If you’re male, white, of a certain age, with the right type of last name, for instance, you will be very favored in that type of process because we are subjective in our decision-making. But what we want to do is really create an opportunity where everyone gets the same chance to show what they have.

At Alva, how do AI aspects get implemented into the recruiting process?

We use machine learning in our product, which is a subcategory of AI. So, we have built our tools in a way where the questions the candidates are asked are based on their answers—the test adapts to the candidates. It’s very candidate-centric, and everyone is served relevant questions.

Then we combine the answers so we can capture relevant information, and next we compare candidates against each other and the job they’re candidates for. We have improved this over time so we get more and more accurate in our predictions with the use of machine learning.

We built our process based on robust scientific theories. AI is a wonderful tool to reduce bias because it’s more data-driven and doesn’t take gut feeling into account, but also, it’s only as good as the data that you feed it with.

So, you still need the human touch when it comes to recruiting.

I think you always need the human touch to talk to candidates, to tell them the story, to sell the role, to pitch the position—but you don’t necessarily need the human touch to make the decision.

I think that’s the important difference, because we know if we make more data-driven decisions with the youth, for instance using AI, that can be very helpful. But if we only use that approach, then we will risk losing candidates in the recruitment funnel. Because you want to meet your future boss and colleagues before you accept jobs.

Are there certain industries that Alva’s services appeal to in particular?

I think we serve a very wide customer audience, from small to enterprise. But I would say fast-growing, quite modern, tech-savvy companies are probably the bulk of our customer base today. Probably the common denominator with our clients is that they care about quality without compromising on candidate experience.

What’s it like working with large companies like Deloitte on diversity initiatives?

I think some of the examples we’ve seen from our customers are that working with our product—and, more importantly, the method that we suggest—is a way that they can actually increase diversity in their hires. We have seen examples of a wider range of ages in applicants. In using our recruitment suggestions, some companies have seen an increase in ethnic hires as well as applications from women. There are different aspects of the diversity spectrum that can actually be addressed with our process. But it’s important to keep in mind that hiring will only feed your organization with diverse candidates—then, it’s up to the company to make sure it can keep them.

Do you think Europe is ahead of the United States when it comes to addressing these sorts of issues in recruitment?

I think there’s more literacy and talking about this subject in the US, being such a melting pot. But I do think that certain countries have been quicker than others in adopting new technology in hiring, especially due to some of the legislation on adverse impact. I think that comes from a fantastic place, but sometimes it’s very expensive for organizations to prove that they can take in new tools and new ways of working, because you can’t rely on generic research. And that can be a hindrance. I think it comes with great purpose, but sometimes can be very costly to move quickly.

As someone who is involved in interviewing and hiring candidates yourself, is there anything you personally do to make sure you’re entering the hiring process from an objective standpoint?

How much time do we have? [Laughs]

One of the most important things is to know what you’re looking for and to design your process based on the requirements for the role. Because it’s very easy to just look at a cover letter, an interview, and a reference check—but does that actually measure what you want to measure?

Also, we use neutral language in our job applications; that can be a really important aspect if you want to attract, say, female candidates, because if you use very male-dominant language, it will decrease the number of women who apply. Additionally, we always reduce the demands that we list in the job ad because that’s an aspect that can scare candidates if it’s too extensive.

When it comes to the actual process, we don’t use cover letters—and never will. We have a place for the resume, but it’s optional because we don’t look at it before. The first thing that a candidate does is answer some screening questions, having to do with skills specifically related to the role. Then they take psychometric assessments, answering questions about who they are, and we find out their natural tendencies and traits. After that, we combine the background data from the screening questions with the psychometric assessment data and decide who to interview.

For interviews, we have pre-designed questions that we ask candidates in the same order. We rate the questions during the interview on a scale of one through five. We try to be super standardized. We often end the process with a work sample test (which includes predefined assessment criteria that we always share with the candidates so that they know what we’re looking for). We try to be as transparent and structured as possible.

Interesting point about the cover letters; sometimes when an application requires one, it can dissuade a potential candidate from applying …

Yes, and research shows that cover letters can’t really predict performance. And they take a lot of time for the candidates and the recruiters. They don’t help recruiters make informed decisions, but rather hinder them from seeing candidates’ potential. Overall, cover letters are reliant on subjectivity and bias. They are a time waste and major blockers if you’re looking for high-quality hires.

And you mentioned psychometric testing—can you detail how important that can be in the recruiting process?

Psychometric testing is the lovely combination of psychology and statistics. It assesses an individual’s traits based on a specific psychological model. It can measure your personality, drivers, motivation, and logic ability. The spectrum can differ, but overall, it’s a human trait assessment method, with different tools to use. And there are definitely different standards that you need to be aware of when you develop these types of tools so that you rely on solid scientific methods of working and ways to create these. But it’s pretty much a way to statistically evaluate someone’s traits.

And is this something more recruiters need to learn about moving forward?

If we look at what research says, psychometric testing is a good way to evaluate lots of candidates in a fair way while gathering relevant data. If you have good psychometric assessment tools, you can make predictions quite accurately. One thing that is important to keep in mind is that it should be a part of a process—it’s not a silver bullet that solves everything. Including this aspect as just one part of your recruitment process will help when it comes to the time and efficiency of candidate experience, but also with accuracy and diversity.

What advice would you give job candidates entering the recruiting process?

To some extent, it needs to be up to the recruiter to take responsibility to ensure that they have a fair process. It’s hard for the candidate to get involved in that. But if I’m going to raise some warning flags, especially if you are a diverse candidate, what should you look out for? I think I would start with cover letters—that is a warning sign for me, as is having to send the resume as the first step. If the organization is not being outspoken about what process they’re using, what steps, and why, that would be a warning sign to me. And not getting concrete feedback of why you’re being moved forward or not—I would see that as a warning sign.

I think it’s important to research companies that are more transparent and that will evaluate you based on who you are, not what’s on a piece of paper. I think it’s about finding the company that will make a fair evaluation of you. I think the only thing that you can do is do your homework on what type of organization it is, which is hard and time-consuming.

How would a job candidate try to join a company that embraces diversity and inclusion? Should they do research themselves to try to find places that embrace those things?

I think for more modern companies, this is becoming second nature. But I would try to do my research. I would look at career pages, I would ask questions during an interview. One thing that we always try to do when we’re recruiting to Alva is let the candidates speak to someone on the team, as it can be challenging to ask questions to the recruiter or to the hiring manager.

Also, potential applicants should look at companies’ career pages and try to look up people on LinkedIn. If the companies an applicant is considering are listed, you can often find their quarterly reports which show how they’re doing on diversity KPIs. But it requires effort from the candidate to find these places because there’s also going to be a lot of ‘diversity washing,’ like when a company has stock photos on its career page that don’t reflect the actual team.

What do you think about training hiring managers in aspects like diversity and inclusion initiatives, removing bias, psychometric testing, etc.?

I think training for awareness is very important, but training won’t be enough.

The most important thing is that companies start acting differently in their hiring processes. So many companies are talking about how important diversity is to them, and they’re running a bunch of training sessions. And that’s a great initiative, but it won’t always lead to actual changes. But perhaps training can be a stepping stone to actually doing it.

There are some bleak numbers around diversity training because no one wants to be unfair. No one wants to be subjective and biased—but we are, as human beings. I’m aware that I have biases—that’s not going to change, my brain didn’t change based on that training, I’m still stuck being human. And this means that I will still judge others based on aspects that don’t seemingly matter. But they do. We’re human and no training will change that.

What lends to your excitement about your field and its prospects for the future?

There is such a wide gap between theory and practice. There’s so much knowledge, so much research on how we should hire, but then reality hits you. And I find it fascinating how so many organizations cling to something that researchers have been saying for years won’t be beneficial. I think that’s one aspect where we need to close that gap.

Everyone thinks hiring is so important and everyone thinks that they know how to do it, that just because they are promoted to a managerial role, they get to hire. But hiring is literally a profession. People tend to forget that.

As human beings, we are driven by short-term gratification. And if you translate that into hiring, it’s ‘Oh, I have closed the process, I have ink on paper, we’ve signed a candidate, great, I’m done.’ But then we never follow up to see if it actually worked out. We’re so focused on getting a candidate in, that we forget that the real receipt of if we did a good job will come nine months later once the candidate has joined, onboarded, and is actually working in the role.

If we can change how we think about recruitment, how we think about talent, what I see as a hope for the future is that we redefine what talent is. Today we see talent as a resume—‘What have you done before? Where did you study? Did you work at this fancy cool company or not?’ But these aspects actually have nothing to do with if a candidate is good or not. There’s so much talent wasted today because we fail to see talent for what talent actually is—talented.

The old saying is ‘hire for aptitude, train for skills.’ Everyone agrees, but everyone hires for skills and tries to train for aptitude, and that’s impossible. We need to flip it around and actually focus on who this individual is, not what’s on their resume—but that’s always the gatekeeper. An application might say ‘If you don’t have this level of experience, don’t apply,’ but then the company that’s hiring actually misses out on so many good potential candidates. And they are just looking in the same little duck pond—but everyone else is also trying to fish for the same type of fish, because they all limit the scope so much.

In the end, it’s not that hard to increase the quality of hires and increase the diversity of your team. Yet, everyone continues to cling to their cover letters even though they reveal nothing about how you cooperate, or how you interact with colleagues.

It’s great to hear you talk with such passion on this topic.

Today, winning job candidates are often just those who got lucky and got that chance. And if you link that to diversity and inclusion, it comes down to, ‘Who gets those opportunities?’ And it’s the people who went to the fancy universities that are well connected. So, in the end, socioeconomic status plays a major part. But if you are a diverse candidate, say from a marginalized background or without the opportunity to attend a recognized school, you don’t even get a seat at the table, because you don’t get the chance to prove yourself. And then it’s a negative spiral.

There are just a lot of complex layers to this that need to get peeled away.


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