Sitting Down With Cinder: On Diversity and Inclusion in Recruiting

The job market has seen tremendous change over the past two years — even before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many aspects of the workforce have since shifted, two trends that will remain constant going forward are the wider availability of remote work and a greater focus on workforce diversity.

More than ever before, positions for contractors, freelancers and consultants are in demand. In fact, it’s estimated that by 2027 there will be 86.5 million freelancers according to Upwork. What makes this work so appealing? Short-term employment opportunities serve both candidates and employers to reduce long-term labor costs, minimize the interviewing process, spearhead projects and initiatives and bring unique perspectives to an organization.

Many candidates turn to recruiting agencies in search of new work and find compatible employers for their specific skill sets. As a person of color, though, it can be difficult to get your name to the top of the pile. However, there are organizations helping applicants do just that. For example, Cinder is a recruiting company that focuses on highlighting candidates that have been regularly overlooked because of their identity.

We sat down with Paul Brown, President at Cinder, to learn more about how the organization started, the current job market and the importance of diverse employment. Read on and discover how Cinder focuses on diversity and inclusion in the recruitment process, as well as building authentic relationships with both candidates and employers alike.

Starting Out: From Tech Staffing to Diversity and Inclusion

Brown: Cinder started as a Tech Staffing agency that focused on the employee experience. Early on we emphasized good benefits, relationships with our workforce, and building credibility as a “trusted advisor” for our clients. We wanted to have strong connections with our candidates and employees so that they would stay with us as long as possible. One area that we had some early success was finding positions for candidates who couldn’t get other people to hire them – in many cases resulting in multi-year relationships with those candidates. The more we learned about the people who weren’t getting jobs, the more we were able to develop our understanding of the systemic barriers (e.g. racism, sexism, and ageism… just to name a few) that perpetuate these outcomes.

Cinder’s mission is to leverage our power as a recruiting and consulting company to build equitable workplaces where people thrive. To us, this means much more than hiring People of Color and women into good tech jobs. We also need to partner with our clients so they can ask questions, work through challenges, learn new skills and techniques, and then make tangible changes to their culture. Workplace culture is often a point of pride for many established businesses – but if that culture is not welcoming to a variety of identities, it needs to be changed. We also need to be able to help them identify and address their hiring processes that are resulting in a homogenous workforce and HR policies that land more harshly on underrepresented team members. A key question for any company is “Do you want to be known for treating your people well, regardless of their identity?” These are the companies we want to work with! This is not a traditional space for a staffing and recruiting agency, but it is a very exciting direction for us and we’re growing as a result of this focus.

How Cinder Focuses on Diversity Within Their Organization

Brown: High Tech struggles to include people who are trans and female-identifying as well as Black, Indigenous and Latino. After decades of efforts to diversify this industry, we have to recognize that this is not an accident – people are getting excluded from these workplaces. From our perspective, the first step is naming the problem and then being intentional about how to address it. In 2021, 9 out of 10 hires on our internal team are People of Color, mostly women, with several identifying as queer. Achieving these numbers isn’t a result of Affirmative Action or “hiring for skin color” – it’s a direct result of where we are showing up, the relationships we’re building with these communities, and our ongoing commitment to build an equitable workplace. We’re really trying to ask ourselves, “How do we shift the decision-making in the organization so that more historically-excluded identities have a say in what we’re doing?” It has to go beyond the hiring; you can’t just hire Black folks to answer the phones and think “I did it.”

While we don’t have this all figured out and we still make plenty of mistakes, we’re creating spaces where our employees can provide more feedback, and decision making is done in a more collaborative way. We’ve also brought in collaboration and group process experts to help us build this competency and avoid getting stuck in old ways of doing things. We have many discussions, events, and presentations about the Equity and Inclusion work we’re doing so that our team members can speak knowledgeably about the work and personalize it to their specific job responsibilities. We also offer services for other companies that want to engage in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and many of our events are Equity focused and free to the public (sign up here if you’d like to be notified of our upcoming events).

Lack of Representation in the Workforce — Why?

Brown: There are plenty of candidates of color – and there are aspects of most hiring processes that exclude them – each organization needs to unpack that for themselves. For example, going through the application and interview process, people have to take time off of work at other jobs, they may have to figure out child care, and possibly navigate travel challenges depending on your workplace. In many scenarios, the job offer that comes from all of this effort is not enough to be able to cover their current expenses – not to mention ongoing child care and transportation costs once they get the job. If your processes do not factor in these challenges, the candidate is receiving messages that you are inflexible and unwilling to work with people in their situation – resulting in many women and People of Color self-selecting out of that process.

If you’re trying to diversify your workforce, there should be a reason for it – and that reason needs to be at the center of the hiring process. You can read about our “why” on our website. There is tremendous potential for harm if you start with a premise like “We would like to hire a person of color, but we want the best candidate.” So, the “best candidate” starts from the premise that being a person of color isn’t part of what would make someone the best candidate. Say for example, you have a lot of Spanish speaking employees and you want to hire a Spanish speaking supervisor – the “best” candidate must speak Spanish. Sure it might take more time to find them, but to hire a candidate who didn’t speak Spanish because you felt a sense of urgency sends a clear message that Spanish language skills were not a requirement to be the “best” candidate. This is not “virtue signaling” or excluding white candidates – this is intentionally filling a practical need within your organization.

In many cases, the primary reason candidates are not selected is that they are missing certain skills that the hiring manager thinks are required. This is a particularly difficult problem because you can’t just create a Python developer with 10 years of experience overnight. Furthermore – 10 years ago, getting into Python programming was even more exclusionary than it is today, so you’re almost defaulting to straight, cisgender, white men as your entire candidate pool with this one requirement. We have to recognize that people who have been excluded from these opportunities are going to need more training, development, and coaching than people who have been included in all of these things (explicitly as well as unconsciously) if we hope they will experience the same success in our workplaces (check out the book The Memo for more on this topic). Hiring under-qualified people with underrepresented identities and then expecting them to “figure it out” is a recipe for disaster. We need to invest in developing team members and we need to pay them while they’re building their skills.

Still bias ends up being a factor even when we are working to prevent it. Hiring managers like to connect with candidates – and they connect best with candidates they identify with. White men, who are often the decision makers in these spaces, will often hire other white men and women because that is what is most familiar to us. We have to build hiring processes that compensate for this comfort bias – and a 90-minute training is not sufficient to address it.

How the Recruiting Landscape Has Evolved (and Continues To Do So)

Brown: What’s fascinating about this moment is that there’s way more jobs than there are people that want to work. A lot of businesses have to rethink how they attract candidates. In 2019, before the pandemic, there were already articles stating that we had more open jobs than people looking for work. Since then, due to COVID, the “Great Resignation” and other economic factors, the gap has roughly tripled. At the same time, unemployment for Black men is roughly double that of white men (2021 data) – clearly there are workers available but they are not finding or being connected to the open roles.

Let’s say a hiring manager feels they need a certain level of education and experience in order to consider a candidate. The easiest way to recruit for a manager like that is to contact people doing a similar job elsewhere and entice them to consider leaving. However, that just creates another hole in someone else’s organization, which they then have to solve the same way. This will become harder over time due to the increased payroll costs and we ultimately have to create the conditions that produce more workers with that skill level, even if it means we have to reevaluate education and experience expectations. Recruiters have to continue to find new ways of conveying the value of lived experience, including transferable skills that may not be obvious initially. Resume screening for keywords is now relatively easy to automate – Recruiting is going to have to do more than that to stay relevant.

Networking and Collaborating With Local Organizations

Brown: One of the most important things recruiters will have to do more often is show up in spaces and demonstrate a commitment to the organizations that are serving the communities we are trying to reach. For example, our recruiting team is a diverse group of folx. When we attend job fairs, the job seekers can see our commitment to diversity. Partnering with existing community organizations can increase candidates from those communities – but they can also tell when another white-led organization is looking for a shortcut to diversifying their workforce. Integrity and authenticity are critical in these interactions.

The hiring process starts before you even write your job description – if you want to diversify your workforce, a great place to start is a community organization that is already serving the community you hope to reach. That way when you post the job, that organization can help get the word out to exactly the people you need to talk to. Often those organizations will also have suggestions for how to make your interview and selection process more equitable.

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