Originally published on LinkedIn.com: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/you-ladder-roadblock-jason-c-mcdonald
I believe in equality, in giving everyone the same chances, and not allowing cultural bias to poison my decisions. I've had the privilege of working alongside individuals from many countries and cultures through my company's internship program, and many more as industry peers.
To me, bigotry and discrimination, especially racism, are among the most disgusting sins against humanity a person could commit. When I'm witness to it, I'm often among the first to come out swinging. Although I'm generally known as a humorous and patient person, I have a reputation for becoming ferocious where this issue is concerned. My background in intercultural communication, my fascination with world culture and history, and my passion for mentorship intersect here.
In my role as a hiring manager, then, I want to give everyone equal consideration. An individual's skills and character are all that matter. Race, gender, heritage, culture, color, religion...these simply don't have a place in the decision-making process.
Unfortunately, the past year has shown me where some of the bias in hiring comes from...and it isn't all from bigoted hiring managers.
2019 and 2020 saw the expansion of my company's internship program to an international scope, allowing us to hire people from all over the world. It's been an exciting ride, meeting people from so many diverse backgrounds, and bringing some of them onto the team!
Thanks to that expanded hiring range, an unexpectedly successful job posting on LinkedIn, and one person's exuberance about sharing the opportunity on social media, I got slammed with a record number of applications for the internship program. There are certainly worse problems to have, or so I thought.
Because of the nature of my own network, and that of the exuberant sharer, that stack of applications included a disproportionate number of applications, both male and female, from one country. I have three awesome industry peers from this same country, and as I said, it doesn't matter to me where a person is from in terms of considering them for a spot in the internship. Besides, I love having the chance to communicate with people from different cultures.
After initial interviews, I was quite excited about potentially working with a few of these applicants. They were enthusiastic about building their programming careers, and sounded excited about the internship. I considered them very strong candidates.
The second phase of the internship involves a coding challenge. This is a custom challenge based on real-world problems at my company, but simplified for the context. It takes about 1-2 hours to complete, and the candidate is given the freedom to use just about any language they like. There's lots of room for creativity and technical acrobatics here, but it's also solvable with fairly rudimentary coding skills.
I've learned this step is absolutely essential for two reasons:
(1) it gives the candidate a chance to show off their current skill level in a low pressure manner. Since they have an entire week to do it, and can use their favorite language and coding tools, I really get a picture of who they are as a coder.
(2) if you can't find time for two hours in a week to do a coding challenge, how are you supposed to make time for a six-hour-a-week internship anyway?
In the seven years I've been hiring for this internship, I've only had two candidates (out of dozens) fail to complete this coding challenge on time. I've seen brilliant solutions, underwhelming solutions, clever solutions, brute-force solutions, badly-implemented solutions, and even a few occasions where the applicant missed the prompt entirely. But with those two exceptions, they always sent it on time.
Since several of these 26 applicants were in Master's programs around the world, I looked forward to seeing their solutions, especially those of four ladies who attended school together in the U.S. and who had applied to the program at the same time.
Of the twenty-seven applicants from this one country (spanning March-May), constituting every single applicant from that country to the internship program, twenty-six never sent their coding challenge! (The one who did scarcely counts anyway, as he completely missed the prompt, and then was so dismally unprofessional in the final interview, he didn't get hired...but that much is on him.)
What's more, none of the twenty-six felt it necessary to contact me again. Ever. The company's COO and co-owner always reviews the videos of my interviews, and she couldn't work out any reason on my part why they'd go silent. All the other applicants sent their coding challenges! Why not these twenty-six?
After the first two of this group had missed the deadline with radio silence, I had even contacted the next two I was waiting on to remind them the day before their deadlines. "Oh, yes, yes, we'll send it on time. Don't worry!" I was reassured.
The deadline came and went. No submission, no withdrawal, no questions, no explanation.
By April, with still a few more no-contact applicants from this country in my future, I was starting to feel a bit confused. Why this cultural group, and no others? I refuse to believe that any cultural group is inherently bad, but I know there are generational trends in any country.
I posted about this on LinkedIn, leaving the demographic off. One of my peers from that country commented.
"You're talking about my country, aren't you?"
"How did you know?" I asked.
He explained that he had observed the same trend among young professionals in his country. I wasn't crazy.
"I'm still going to give the same consideration to applicants from this country," I told the co-owner of my company. "Ethically, I have to. I cannot let a cultural bias form."
But now, for the first time in my seven years as a hiring manager, seeing a country of origin left a bad taste in my mouth. Every time a new applicant from this country appeared in my inbox, my stomach dropped. I put on a smile, determined to give them a fair chance. Often, they'd pass the initial interview well, and I'd walk away thinking, "Yes! Maybe this one will break the pattern!"
Yet despite a stern warning that the coding challenge deadline was set in stone, and despite their apparent incredulity that I've had over a dozen applicants that year not sending the coding challenge — I never once mentioned the pattern — every single one of them would never follow through.
Last week, I interviewed #26, a young man attending a master's program in America who had grown up in that one country. Somehow, he seemed different in the interview. He spoke of integrity, reliability, and follow-through. He got the usual spiel about the coding challenge having a hard deadline, and that (then) 25 applicants this year had not sent the coding challenge, or even a withdrawal.
"If you decide you don't want the internship right now, please email me," I explained. "I know this is a really uncertain time. If you just contact me before the deadline, I can put your application on hold, and you can reapply later. Otherwise, if I hear nothing at all, your application will be blacklisted. I need people I can rely on."
"Thank you, yes. I will definitely submit on time! Don't worry."
That was the last time I heard from him. The deadline came and went without a single word.
With a heavy sigh, I moved another resume to the "Rejected" folder.
It's hard not to believe there's a pattern when that many people demonstrate an utter disregard for keeping their word. I'm willing to believe that one or two might have had an unexpected circumstance come up, but not twenty-six. I'm with Lieutenant Leaphorn (Chee and Leaphorn series by Tony Hillerman) — there's no such thing as a coincidence.
My intercultural communicator, with his ferocious hatred of discrimination, cannot in good conscience label an entire nation, even by the actions of more than three-quarters of the people I've encountered from said nation. But it is not easy! I still feel a little sick when I get an application from that country, something that isn't going to change until someone, anyone, breaks the pattern.
So, why tell this story at all? I need to highlight the unspoken part of the problem of discrimination: it is every person's responsibility to represent the groups of which they are members in a positive manner! None of these twenty-six applicants can cite discrimination from me. I interviewed each one with the same seriousness and enthusiasm I give every applicant. I gave them all the same chances, and hoped with all my heart they would follow through. The failure here is only theirs to own.
But their actions have not merely harmed them — they have harmed their entire group. If I, a passionate advocate for equality and diversity, can be made to dread screening applicants from an entire country, how much more the majority of hiring managers who are not so educated in bias formation and cultural diversity?
You, the member of a minority group, have a solemn responsibility to your peers: must you be a ladder, and not a roadblock!
Twenty-six applicants from the same country, for whatever reason, all made a conscious decision to blow off an obligation, disrespect my time, and render their word worthless. Twenty-six applicants chose to be unreliable. Most of them probably didn't know there were other applicants from their group, or that they were playing into a pattern.
It's so easy to blame everyone else for the biases against us, and forget that often we have a role in either building or tearing down those biases. A young man complains that people assume he's lazy, and then he plays Xbox all weekend instead of completing class assignments. A young lady complains that everyone assumes she'll be "emotional", and then she storms out of a meeting in a huff when she's reassigned to a higher priority task. A man rants about everyone assuming he's illiterate because of his skin color, but then he insists on using "ghetto slang" in all his workplace correspondence.
Are most young men lazy, most young women emotional, most people of this race illiterate? OF COURSE NOT! But to the people working with these particular individuals, those biases are being actively reinforced. Even if they want to believe otherwise, if their experience with the group is consistent with the bias, what else are they supposed to believe?
This does not excuse anyone to embrace racism, sexism, or any other form of discrimination or bigotry. It merely highlights that we all have an individual responsibility to represent our group in a positive way.
Understand, I'm not addressing this as someone unacquainted with being the target of discrimination. I have Mohawk (Native American) heritage, something I'm proud of, but for which I have had friends reject me and mock me. I'm a traumatic brain injury survivor with permanent disabilities — "invisible" ones at that — and that has put me on the receiving end of accusations of being lazy, a faker, or mentally ill.
In both of these areas, I have been mindful that while I am not responsible for the discrimination aimed at me, I can do my part to contradict the biases against the groups of which I'm a member. Beyond that, it is my responsibility to conduct myself in a manner which makes the path smoother for other Native Americans, and for other traumatic brain injury survivors.
It is my job, as it is yours, to be a ladder, and not a roadblock.
P.S. I'm still willing to consider applicants from that one country, and I hope to encounter a person who will break this pattern.