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Rethinking Hiring: Walking the Walk

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
 I’m a fan of leading by doing.
Which is to say, when I suggest to museums (as I do in every section of TrendsWatch), “you might want to…” I always ask myself, and the Alliance, if we might “want to” as well.

Since one major focus of AAM’s new strategic plan is “diversity, equity, accessibility & inclusion,” I’ve been doing what I can to help the Alliance turn that focus inward, working with AAM’s HR director, Katherine McNamee, to try out some emerging practices designed to combat hiring bias as we recruited our Ford W. Bell Fellow for Museums & P-12 Education. In this post I’ll share a bit about that process and what we learned. (We will soon announce who we actually hired. Be patient!)  

Short version: “non-traditional” hiring takes more thought, more work and more time than the familiar “write a job posting, put it online, collect resumes, compare, interview, hire.” Doubtless it will take less time once we’ve developed & practiced new routines, but starting from scratch, it took me over six months of reading, thinking and digesting to even figure out what we might want to try. Hopefully, by sharing what AAM learns as we implement these practices, we can help shorten that part of the process for museums that want to incorporate unbiased hiring into their work.

After much thought, we targeted the following points in recruitment where bias can creep in:

  • Defining the qualifications for the position
  • Writing the position description and the job posting
  • Disseminating the job posting
  • Structuring the application process
  • Evaluating the applications
  • Conducting interviews
All too often people default to the assumption that “to do this (my) job well, people ought to be like me—have this background, this education, this experience.”  Research has documented that even well-meaning employers fall prey to this tendency, and end up hiring people like themselves. Even when the requirements listed in job ads don’t replicate a supervisor’s resume, they are often proxies for what the employer really wants. “Bachelor’s degree required,” for example, may mean “I want someone who can write a coherent sentence” (even if we know from sad experience that the former doesn’t guarantee the latter). Unbiased hiring may require a lot of interpretation and imagination, helping a candidate show how their background, however unconventional, could be a good fit for this position.

The first thing we threw out was any assumption about education. We didn’t specify a required degree (even undergrad, much less higher edu). This was particularly appropriate to this position, which is dedicated to exploring alternative educational futures. In fact, we listed as the most important qualification “We are looking for someone with a futures-oriented mindset, who is willing to challenge assumptions about how museums and schools work today. ”To drive this home, we noted “Personal experience (as a learner, parent, or educator) with alternative educational structures (home-schooling, un-schooling, experimental schools) would be a plus.”  All the other qualifications were based on the skills needed to do the work associated with the fellowship. (You can read the full position description here.)
Writing the position description and the job posting

Textio feedback on final Ford
Fellow position description.

A growing body of research shows that language has a huge effect on who will even apply for a position. Tech companies, in particular, have put a lot of effort into parsing the gendered nature of job ads, noting what words tend to attract male or female applicants. This has created a niche for companies that apply textual analysis to the job search. We used Textio, an online service that helps employers “find the magic words” that increase response rate and minimize bias. Taking advantage of their free trial, we ran our draft through their algorithm to receive real-time analysis of and feedback on language as we edited the text of the posting. (With a paid subscription employers can vet multiple positions, as well as track and compare the results of their various searches.) Katherine and I tweaked our wording until the position description got a 100% score on the Textio system (see screen capture to the right).  While the system is designed to analyze position descriptions per se, we used Textio for feedback on the language in our job posting as well.

Disseminating the job posting

To build a diverse staff, you need to reach a diverse pool of potential applicants. If we only talk to “people like us” we limit potential hires from the start. In this case, we wanted to cast a wide net that might catch the interest of people whose roots lay in museums, education, futurism, policy, philanthropy—any number of fields. That meant we couldn’t just post to the AAM job board. We deployed several strategies to broaden our reach:
  1. We established an outside advisory committee for the hiring process that included a professional futurist, two entrepreneurs running alt-educational businesses, the CEO of an education-related foundation and an expert in education forecasting and reform. One of their assignments was to disseminate the opportunity through their personal and professional networks.
  2. We created a microsite dedicated to the future of education, populated with content from across the web, and pushed it as a “go-to” source of information on this topic, hoping to capture a variety of readers. One section of the microsite was devoted to the search for the Ford Fellow.
  3. I mined my contact list and sent personal emails to over 80 people—leaders in the museum field, educators, futurists, philanthropists, consultants, entrepreneurs, student activists, journalists and more—to ask their help in bringing the position to the attention of people in their spheres.
Structuring the application process

Even as we removed a lot of traditional “proxy” qualifications from the position description, we added to the application process opportunities for candidates to demonstrate what they could do. Such “challenge-based hiring” is more common in the tech sector (where an applicant might be asked to demonstrate coding, for example) but it is rapidly spreading to other fields as well. We designed four challenges that were presented to applicants in the course of three rounds of review.

The initial challenge was linked to a CFM “future fiction” challenge inviting people to submit a story of the future that featured museums in a starring role. This ran at the same time as the Fellow search, and though the challenge was open to anyone, applicants to the Fellowship were required to enter. Our stripped-down search criteria for the Fellow were “passion and imagination about the future of education, the ability to communicate that passion via speaking and writing, and the skills to trial ideas in the real world.” The future fiction challenge was an opportunity to demonstrate three of these qualifications (passion, imagination, communication skills). 

Our top four candidates were presented with a second challenge, inviting them to tell the internal hiring committee, via Skype video, “about one element you would want to include in your [fellowship] work plan—a notable goal that would have perceptible impact on the museum field, and be of enduring value for the Alliance as we continue to address the future of education.” That interview was structured to explore how a candidate’s skills, ability and experience were well-suited to achieving the goal he or she described.

Out of those four applicants, we chose two for in-person interviews which revolved around two more challenges. Each finalist spent an hour with the internal search committee, with the bulk of the time devoted to a free-form discussion about their vision for the future of education in the US. Each also gave a 15 minute presentation to a group of AAM staff, followed by Q&A, on “anything they are passionate about,” with the goal of “leaving the audience wanting to know more.” Again, these challenges were designed to enable applicants to demonstrate vision, passion and communication skills.

Evaluating the applications

The outside search committee used a scoring rubric tied closely to the position’s goals and qualifications, rating the applicants, based on their cover letter and resume, on:

  • Project-management skills
  • Written communication skills
  • Applicable work and personal experience (broadly interpreted: could be in museums, education or other sectors)
  • Passion for educational reform
  • Futures-oriented mindset/willingness to challenge assumptions
A number of articles Katherine and I read recommended so-called “blind auditions” as the best practice possible. (When American orchestras started using a physical screen during auditions, so that the hiring committee could not see the musicians, the percent of female musicians in the top orchestras in the country quickly climbed.) We played with the idea of masking gender in the initial evaluation round, but decided that the process of “blinding” the resumes and cover letters was too labor intensive for our resources. However, members of the search committee did read and rate “blind” copies of the stories, not knowing which applicant wrote which story until after all scores were submitted. Both the resumes and the stories were taken into account in choosing our top candidates.
Conducting the interviews

We structured the interviews using recommendations we’d gleaned from various recent articles on best practices (such as this onefrom Harvard Business Review). Based on this advice, we made sure that:

  • We used the same questions with each candidate, and each question was asked in the same order, by the same person, in each interview
  • Interviewers took notes in real time, or as soon as possible after the interview
  • When we discussed candidates, we compared their answers to the same question, working through all the questions, rather than doing an overall debrief on one candidate before moving on to the next.

The posting attracted 40 applications, over a quarter of which were ranked as highly competitive. The gender ratio was 75% female, 25% male, which was not as balanced as we had hoped. However, this might be tied to the fact that despite our outreach efforts, most of the applicants were from museum or museum-related backgrounds, with a sprinkling of educators—and both museums and education are highly feminized fields. Next time when fellow-hunting, if we want an applicant pool with more representatives from outside the museum sector, I would look for deeper ways to engage with partner organizations—publicizing at relevant conferences, guest blogging on other people’s platforms, etc.

On the down side, the process took a lot of time—on the part of staff, committee members and applicants. On the upside, a number of people in each of those categories went out of their way to comment that they found the process itself to be a learning experience. My boss, Rob Stein, who joined AAM just in time for the final two rounds of interviews, notes that in contrast to his usual experience with search committees (I believe he used the term “soul-killing”) this process was actually instructive. And we were very pleased with the quality of candidates–each round of review involved difficult choices.

Would I do it again? Yes, and Katherine and I are working on recommendations for what elements of this process AAM might mainstream into our recruiting. I found applicants’ responses to the challenges particularly illuminating, in contrast to the opacity of the typical resume.

Things I didn’t get to try that I might still like to experiment with (first hand, or as part of someone else’s search process):

  • True “blinding” of cover letters and applications, removing references to gender, and maybe to specific schools.
  • First cut interviews via avatar, in which applicants can choose how to present themselves in a virtual realm (which would not only help anonymize the interview with respect to legally protected status such as gender, age or race, but also as-yet-unprotected classes such as weight).
My colleague, Nicole Ivy, (who was a member of the internal search committee) chaired a panel on “Reducing Hiring Bias in Museums” at the Alliances annual meeting earlier this spring. The excellent panelists explored a variety of techniques to mitigate the damage inflicted by unconscious filters employers bring to the process of recruiting new staff. You can download the session recording here (free for conference attendees, $15 otherwise). We will be exploring some of these tools in a forthcoming FutureLab project, inviting museums to test some of the strategies outlined above. Stay tuned for ways your museum can get involved!

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  1. You might want to 🙂 think about the barriers to entry to applying to the position and what you are asking in relation to what you are offering to applicants who are not selected. I applaud and support these efforts in making hiring and selecting applicants more inclusive. An area where I still see challenges though is in the intensity of the process. When I have been a jobseeker in nontraditional processes like these myself was tasked with doing a writing assignment, a mock project/task, and a lengthy interview, all things that took a considerable amount of time to do or prepare for, and I made it to the final two candidates. When I was not selected, I asked for some feedback and received no response. This was extremely disheartening. I realize that people are very busy and sometimes it is difficult to even give feedback as to why one person is selected over another, but I also did not feel like it was an outlandish request in light of the amount of time I had taken to participate in the interview process.

  2. Love these suggestions and thanks for the discussion. I use blind hiring for my team at a science museum and I've found it has not taken much time at all. We routinely get 150+ applications for an opening and it takes a couple of hours for someone to redact them. I also notice that you did not include the importance of personality and workforce fit in your list of key hiring discussions. I know sometimes that "personality" can be a code word for bias, but it is still something one must consider – especially in team oriented, collaborative environments. Any thoughts about how to assess personality in a non-bias way?

  3. Interested to know if or how you have thought about tackling bias in the workplace so that if you are successful at hiring more diverse people, then you can also affirm, support and retain them. What have your conversations about that been like?

  4. Loved Ray's comment. I personally have greatly benefitted from challenge-based interviews (as a hirer and hiree) but it does make the feedback when you don't get the position all the more desired. How can we give appropriate feedback without opening our institution/company up to legal issues/vulnerability etc.?

    I didn't know about some of theses tools to assess postings for bias, and the idea of an outside advisory group is invigorating!

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