From the time we humans first gathered in groups, bias has existed. This instinctual bias serves a necessary purpose—protecting us from strangers who may pose a threat—but it can also divide us from the very people who could best benefit us.
While we are a long way from our ancestors’ survival-based need to identify and avoid unknown people, that same bone-deep urge remains part of us today. Unfortunately, bias still plays a role in our own day-to-day business endeavors, preventing companies and organizations from being as effective as they could be. And one of the common ways that plays out is in who gets hired for what job.
According to online job board Mac’s List, companies that are diverse perform 33% better than those that are not. Diversity is a core value at Queen Consulting Group, a Talent Group Company and sister company of EdgeLink. “We value people with different voices, different backgrounds, and different life experiences” because we believe that “individuality is what really sparks diverse creativity and innovation.”
Hiring the best technical staff is crucial for any organization, but ensuring a fair and unbiased hiring process can be a challenging task. One of Queen Consulting Group’s clients recognized this issue and has been taking steps to tackle bias in their hiring practices.
Katrina Brinkley, Chief Product Owner and Program Manager at the Utah State Board of Education’s Utah Schools Information Management System (USIMS), is leading the charge in this effort. Brinkley’s passion for USIMS stems from the project’s scale and impact: “Utah is one of the first states to be doing something of this scale that affects so many users, and we want to make something great. We want to be the model for other states.”
As part of her role, Brinkley is responsible for hiring technical experts to develop and implement the comprehensive system, which will serve a diverse group of educators, students, parents, and guardians. Currently managing three engineering teams, she is now in the process of hiring a fourth. Since 2021, Brinkley has hired 26 contractors and is adding ten more to fill out the final team. “It’s intense—there’s a lot to do,” she admits.
“Here in Utah, we have a strong religious influence that creates an environment that’s sometimes not as friendly to DEI candidates as it could be. Historically, we have very traditional roles—as a woman in technology, I have seen this for twenty years. It’s not the easiest culture to overcome,” explains Brinkley. “It can operate like a good-old-boys’ club: ‘well, my buddy knows this skill and he would be a great fit.’ There can be a lot of group-think that happens.”
To ensure that USIMS was developed and implemented by the most qualified technical experts, Brinkley recognized the need to move away from traditional methods of hiring, which often involved hiring based on personal connections or group preferences. “When I took on USIMS I specifically didn’t want to continue enabling that. I didn’t want to just hire everyone’s buddies. We have very specific roles that we need to fill and if we don’t hire the best people with that skillset, we won’t be able to deliver the best value.“
To break free from group-think and ensure a more unbiased hiring process, Brinkley adopted a blind method of hiring. By doing so, she aimed to ensure that candidates were evaluated based on their qualifications and skills, rather than personal connections or other non-job-related factors.
State of Utah hiring procedures specify the use of contracted recruiting agencies to identify candidates, so although she can’t control which candidates are submitted for her consideration, Brinkley crafts her job descriptions to be as neutral as possible. To reduce gender bias, she doesn’t use pronouns (other than “they”) to describe the ideal candidate. To avoid age bias, she typically specifies a level of experience at the lower end of what the job will require. “I focus on finding curiosity and passion and an eagerness to learn” in a candidate, she says. “I look for capacity and ability in multiple areas.”
Once she has a group of resumes to review, Brinkley applies her own method of identifying the best candidates with the least bias possible. “I create a spreadsheet with all the personal information—name, dates, ages, education, etc.—in a hidden column. That way, I can focus on skillsets: what the candidate’s skills are and how often they’ve been used throughout a career.”
Brinkley does the first round of interviews and notes, “When I see the person, it’s always a surprise.” She focuses on having a conversation about who the candidate is and what their goals are. “I don’t do a technical deep dive. The things I want to learn are: can they communicate? are they passionate?”
After the first interview, Brinkley passes along her recommendations to her team (with identifying information again hidden), which then conducts the second round of interviews of their potential coworkers. At that point, they are looking for people who would not only be able to do the job but who would be a good fit on the team. Brinkley notes that if a team member has recommended a candidate, that team member won’t participate in that entire round of interviews, ensuring that the team as a whole remains unbiased about who the recommended candidate may be.
Reducing bias in the hiring process is an ongoing effort, and Katrina Brinkley’s work at USIMS is an excellent example of how it can be achieved. By adopting a blind method of hiring and focusing on a candidate’s skills and experience, rather than personal characteristics, Brinkley has created a more inclusive hiring process. However, she acknowledges that there is still room for improvement, and the effort to improve diversity in IT hiring is ongoing.
At the heart of Brinkley’s approach to hiring is the goal of treating each candidate with professionalism, respect, and fairness. Avoiding bias is an essential component of this effort. As Brinkley notes, “Everybody is a candidate at some point. Everybody deserves to have that good hiring experience.” By working to create a more inclusive and unbiased hiring process, organizations can attract and retain the best talent, creating a more diverse and innovative workforce.