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The Talent Revolution episode 20 - Mike Shwedick

Eliminating Unconscious Bias is a Team Sport

January 4th, 2022 5 minute read
Tom Hacquoil
Tom Hacquoil
Oddly enough, a positive experience working for a Fortune 500 company got Mike Shwedick hooked on startups.

When Mike started working for Apple at age 20, he was used to the high-turnover, low-retention environment at most large companies. But Apple was different. They invested in their employees and strove to retain them—and not with fancy tools, either. The focus was cultural; Apple identified people as a priority and followed through. Feedback was collected and valued, and every employee had a career development plan.

Mike has been striving to bring that kind of people-oriented environment to every HR team he’s worked on since. The beauty of startups, he says, is that you are typically the sole HR hire when you start. With a high level of influence from the beginning, you can guide companies toward investing in their employees without breaking the bank. No expensive software or quarterly retreats necessary—just a new perspective that drives People Operations.

(Full disclosure: we’re lucky enough to have Mike working on our team at Pinpoint now. But our fascinating conversation wasn’t about that, I promise.)

Instead, Mike walked me through his approach to ensuring HR teams eliminate unconscious bias and hire a representative pool of candidates, even if they’re a bootstrapped startup with minimal assets. If you’re looking to make an impact and gain a competitive edge, you’ll love this episode.

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Taking a stepwise approach to D&I

One of the biggest mistakes companies make is paying lip service to grandiose Diversity & Inclusion plans before they have the resources to make those plans a reality. “Employees want transparency, and they know when it’s not real,” he says. “So first, be really honest about where you are. If you’re at a level one out of ten, stop the bad practices and bad actors as a first step. Put a process in place to get you to a two or a three.”

In other words, companies can’t eliminate organizational bias overnight, and they shouldn’t try. Achievable steps taken now matter more than elaborate and intangible commitments. 

That’s why, for the small business or startup in their first year, Mike first works to understand the state of things: basics like headcount, established processes, and significant pain points. Then he looks forward to an organization’s ideal state, including elements like growth, funding, etc. 

From there, he establishes the core HR processes and software that will create the foundation of a healthy People Ops team, including an HRIS and an ATS. With a single source of truth and a streamlined way to manage employee and applicant data, it’s much easier to take steps to eliminate individual bias from the way companies manage their teams.

Not until year two does the focus become more complex, adding elements like job levels, performance frameworks, and compensation philosophy. The basics must exist before the rest can follow.

STARs offer a less-traveled path to diversity

One of the organizations where Mike put his considerable talents to good use is Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit with a fantastic mission: to increase career opportunities for working adults without a four-year degree. They call these workers STARs: Skilled Through Alternative Routes.

Companies often work to increase diversity without noticing the hiring practices that actively work against that aim, like requiring a bachelor’s degree. It may seem like a harmless way to filter down candidates, but requiring a BA for a job that doesn’t need that level of education eliminates 60% of U.S. adults from your job search. Within those millions of people are 70% of Black workers, 80% of Hispanic workers, and almost 75% of rural workers. 

Even with blinded applications, an enormous percentage of diverse candidates are overlooked at the stage of screening for a bachelor’s degree. 

College is the most direct route to middle- and high-wage work, but it can’t be the single path to success. Otherwise, it becomes a drawbridge that disqualifies 70 million American workers based on socioeconomic bias. Not to mention other factors, like the simple truth that college isn’t for everyone.

The good news is, there’s a simple way to increase diversity in your workforce: focus on the core skills required to perform a job well rather than arbitrary educational requirements.

We often view a four-year degree as a signal that a person can complete something, but there are other ways to demonstrate tenacity. Longevity in a role and job performance are also indicators that an applicant can stick to a task and learn over time. 

STARs also present a considerable opportunity for organizations willing to adapt their hiring practices. The 60% of people you’ve been screening out with a degree requirement have also been screened out by the competition—so tapping a new applicant pool gives you a serious advantage. 

Eliminating unconscious bias is a team sport

I asked Mike about the steps organizations should take if they decide to act on those D&I commitments by seeking out STARs. “It’s not quite as simple as removing the yes/no question about a four-year degree,” Mike says. Instead, organizations should make deliberate choices about how they recruit. 

Here’s a list of strategies he recommends to open up your pipeline to a more representative pool of qualified candidates:

  • Write intentional job descriptions that clarify what you’re looking for. Are 15 years of experience strictly necessary for someone to perform well in the job, or are you looking for a core set of skills that you can test?
  • Ask about STAR status in the same way you ask about racial diversity to help get STAR candidates into the interview room.
  • Think about gateway jobs, or middle-wage positions you could open up and prioritize. Which roles don’t require a degree? Where are current employees without degrees excelling? Typical examples are IT, customer service, or sales.
  • Mitigate unconscious bias within teams and with hiring managers. Getting STARs in your pipeline is just half the battle—if they get screened out by the team, you won’t affect change in hiring. Look for resources on unconscious bias training or an ATS with the structure and tools to help.
  • Be honest about where you are. If you’re starting from zero, you won’t have a perfectly diverse recruitment process or team in six months—and that’s okay. Make a plan detailing where you are now and how you’ll improve, then stay accountable internally to meeting those objectives.

Join us each week for more tales from the trenches and best-practice people guidance.

About the author
Tom Hacquoil
Tom Hacquoil
Tom is the CEO at Pinpoint and he's passionate about building world-class teams.

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