All the Things You Shouldn’t Be Evaluating During Interviews

Two women sitting across a conference room table from a third woman
Traditional candidate evaluation advice can be biased and ableist.

There are all kinds of advice on the Internet about things you should be evaluating when you conduct an interview. Very little advice exists on things that you should NOT be considering. Some of my “don’t evaluate these things” show up on people’s “must evaluate” lists.

Hiring managers must be conscious of outdated biased and ableist interviewing techniques to legitimately claim “inclusive organization” status.

Don’t evaluate the candidate’s eye contact.

If eye contact is on the “must-have” list for a successful candidate, you are automatically discriminating against people with disabilities that prevent them from making eye contact. People with disabilities that impact eye contact include people with autism, attention deficit disorder, and vision loss. In total, these three conditions make up 12 percent of the population. Just because your candidate doesn’t make great eye contact doesn’t mean they can’t do the job.

Don’t evaluate the candidate’s “firm handshake.”

If a firm handshake is on your “must-have” list for a successful candidate, you are automatically discriminating against people with disabilities that prevent them from having a firm handshake. People with disabilities that impact handshakes include people with arthritis, limb differences, autoimmune conditions, carpal tunnel, tennis elbow, rotator cuff injuries, or phobias that make it difficult to make hand to hand contact. Don’t even get me started on how it isn’t even ADVISABLE during COVID to offer a handshake assuming you can even do interviews in person. Just because the candidate doesn’t give you a firm handshake doesn’t mean they can’t do the job.

Don’t automatically penalize a candidate who is late.

Some hiring managers refuse to hire someone who is late to an interview or if the candidate reschedules. This is an intersectional problem that discriminates against people with disabilities, people who have issues with executive functions, people with caregiver responsibilities, and finally, those in lower socioeconomic strata. I guarantee that when someone is late for an interview, they are more upset about it than you are.

  • People who don’t have the luxury of private transportation live at the whims of public/paratransit. These are fickle forms of transportation entirely outside of the candidate’s control.
  • People with poor spatial abilities get lost easily.
  • People who use manual wheelchairs or mobility devices may get tired and have to stop and rest if the office they are directed to is in the bowels of a large complex.

Just because candidates are late doesn’t mean they can’t do the job. Ask them why they were late, and you may get a better insight into who they are as candidates and some of the barriers they are forced to overcome regularly.

Don’t automatically favor a candidate who has “higher energy.”

Some hiring managers refuse to hire someone who is, in their subjective opinion, “low energy.” That tends to discriminate against introverts and other people who have reasons that they don’t want to stand out, like people with disabilities or people who have been bullied in the past. Energy status may be part of an individual’s personality, or it may be that they’re having an off day. It could also be related to a chronic medical condition exacerbated by the interview process. Just because somebody doesn’t get externally excited about something doesn’t mean that they’re not internally enthusiastic about it. Subjective external energy interpretations are rarely relevant to whether or not a candidate can get the job done. If energy is indeed a concern, before you disqualify the candidate, ask them to provide specific details of how they would bring energy to solving a particular problem. That will give you vastly more useful information about the candidate’s qualifications than automatically favoring a “higher energy” candidate.

Don’t evaluate the candidate’s clothing.

Well-fitting, fashionable clothes are another sign of privilege that people with disabilities and those in lower socio-economic groups don’t always have.

  • Very little clothing is made with physical differences in mind. What does exist is quite expensive.
  • People with disabilities can’t always afford the tailoring needed to make their clothes fit well.
  • People returning to work after absences frequently have out-of-date clothing styles. They can’t afford a new wardrobe, because they haven’t been working.

Clothes do not make the candidate.

Don’t automatically reject a candidate for lacking a particular hard skill.

What motivated me to start this blog 2+ years ago was a former co-worker, one of the best and most dedicated accessibility testers I know, not getting a job because the interviewer thought his JAWS skills weren’t advanced enough.

  • Hard skills are vastly more straightforward to learn than soft skills.
  • Hard skill acquisition is a checkbook engineering problem. Send the employee to a class, and the problem is usually solved.
  • Do not turn down an otherwise outstanding candidate for the lack of a hard skill. You may be sorry if who you choose has the technical skill you are looking for but demonstrates a complete lack of EQ or communication skills that you didn’t query about enough in the interview.

Don’t reject candidates based on a bad “cultural fit.”

“Cultural fit” in US business, and especially in tech, has become a euphemism for “different than us.”

Repeat after me:

— Different is good.

— Different is not something to be feared.

— Differences should be embraced.

When “cultural fit” is one of the sought-after qualifications, the result is an echo chamber where everybody in the organization comes from the same background and has the same ideas. Interviewing for cultural fit ends up inhibiting innovation.

  • Maybe your “cultural fit” is all people must have graduate degrees.
  • Maybe your “cultural fit” is people who love cycling.

You can see where unconscious bias sneaks in in just those two examples. People from underrepresented groups are less likely to have graduate degrees or have expensive bicycles and free time to use them. By looking for those two qualifications in your candidates, you are automatically making your group less diverse.

Instead, look for people who enhance your culture.

Don’t look for people who went to “the right schools.”

Are you open to recruiting from:

  • Non-tier one schools?
  • Bootcamps?
  • Four-year graduates, who began in community college?

If you only hire people who went to Stanford, you will create the same type of privileged echo chamber as previously discussed in the “cultural fit” section.

Enough with the how not to do it, here are some post-modern / post-COVID questions that you should be asking all of your candidates.

  1. Tell me about a privilege you possess. This question lets you know whether the person has ever thought about themselves as being privileged and what they consider to be a privilege. Even the most intersectional individual who identifies with multiple underrepresented groups will generally have one privilege, somewhere in their history.
  2. Tell me your definition of resilience (grit/determination if you prefer those terms) and a situation where you exhibited that trait. Resilience is our ability to adapt, and grit/determination is bouncing back when things don’t go as planned. No project ever goes exactly as planned. Some go off the rails almost immediately. The ability to troubleshoot, problem-solve and find workarounds is crucial to business success. Resilient people acknowledge mistakes, learn from them, and move forward. They don’t wallow in or dwell on failures.
  3. Tell me about a time where you mentored someone. Even the lowest entry-level candidate will have likely helped someone with their homework along the way. Mentoring requires the ability to value another individual’s success ahead of your own, which is very important in team dynamics.
  4. Tell me about a time where you took an active step to embrace inclusion. The answer to this vital question tells you the candidate’s perception of how they can influence a company’s overall JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) vision. If your company claims to be an inclusive organization, the answer to this question is fundamental.
  5. What is the hardest part about X? X can be anything. The answer to this question provides insight into the candidate’s thought process and perhaps their weaknesses (everybody has at least one).

Two important hints:

  1. Hiring managers MUST use identical questions for every candidate for a given role. If you don’t do that, when you compare candidates at the end of the interview process, it is apples and oranges. This allows subjective bias to creep in more easily.
  2. Offer every candidate a reasonable accommodation at the beginning of the screening process and again when scheduling the interview. It sends the message that your organization is inclusive and ensures that every candidate is at their best. Don’t pick and choose based on who you think has a disability; you are likely to miss most of the 70 % of disabled candidates who have invisible disabilities.

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