I have recently been helping someone navigate the world of searching for a job. And quite honestly, it’s insane. Gone are the days of meeting someone face-to-face, handing over your CV, shaking a hand and adding a personal touch. In today’s world, most employers leverage online platforms that allow you to upload your resume, check off a set of skills that will hopefully make you more marketable, and choose from a dropdown menu of prescribed short responses. In short, you are reduced to an algorithm.
I watched as he uploaded his documents and hit “submit” on a job. Within three minutes he received a rejection email from the employer saying that he was not selected to continue in the interview process; he did not have the qualifications needed for the position. I was shocked. Three minutes. How could someone from the company have possibly reviewed his information so quickly and made a decision about his candidacy? Even more shocking was the fact that he had previously worked for this same employer and obviously has more than sufficient experience for the position. If anyone took the time to read through his resume they would have seen that, as well as the fact they had hired him once before when he had less experience than he does now.
Then it hit me. Algorithms.
He didn’t check off “the right” boxes, list enough key words, or input enough parameters to be positively filtered and flagged by the algorithm that the company was using to pass an initial screening. My inner Sociology teacher came out and I decided to try it myself. I uploaded my resume for positions for which I felt I was at least qualified enough to pass the initial screening and get an interview. Submit. Rejection. Submit. Rejection. When I began to dive deeper into the online platform, I started to see the job postings notifying me of my potential (or lack thereof) “fit” for the positions.
“The words ‘finance’ or ‘customer service’ or ‘problem solving’ are missing from your resume and are required for this position.”
I looked. It’s true. Those exact words were not on my resume. However, as a former Head of School, I can tell you with certainty that my experience in those areas was tested each and every day I stepped onto campus. How could anyone know what my experience is from reducing me to a set of filters?
My friend was reduced to an algorithm. I was reduced to an algorithm.
We reduce people to algorithms.
It gave me pause to reflect: How often do we disenfranchise true talent because of our institutional or personal algorithms? How many people do we unfairly toss aside from an initial screening? Most importantly, how have I disenfranchised people due to my institutional or personal algorithm? It was, and is, a hard question to swallow. But a vital one to address.
I remember recruitment season. Fast, furious, and relentless at times. I started thinking about my experience in hiring teachers and administrators and what algorithms I had in place when I watched the line of perspective educators grow in front of my logo-draped table.
My algorithm: Secondary English teacher; at least 3 years of international experience; able to teach two AP courses - with experience teaching at least one; able to live in available housing accommodations; experienced in designing project based learning experiences; must be willing to teach a debate or MUN elective course; relocating with no pets.
And that was just one candidate. Now, as I sit and read over and analyze this typical algorithm, I see so many glaring ways that it can (and most likely did) disenfranchise true talent. Who was I not providing space for to share their experiences? Who had the passion and fire to change student lives, but didn’t have three years of international teaching experience? Who didn’t have the privilege of being able to afford an international experience or AP certification courses? Better yet, who hasn't been given the chance to teach an AP course previously? Who wasn’t coming from a school that had the human and financial resources needed to implement a project-based approach to learning? Who didn’t go to a high school or college that provided experiences to learn debate or Model United Nations? The list can go on and on.
I have hired a lot of people during my time as a school administrator. I recently sat and began to make a list with two columns. The first column contained educators that I hired that I consider to be successful, and by successful I mean not just highly rated on a performance rubric. They were skilled in content, delivery, student-centric engagement, and relationship building with students, colleagues, families, and the community. In the second column were educators that I hired that struggled, even after providing targeted feedback, support, and guidance. Although there were a few outliers in each of the columns, I began to see a pattern emerging. Many of the most amazing educators that I have had the privilege of working with were those that I had to break my personal or institutional algorithm in order to hire. What it also showed me was that I should have taken the time to purposefully dismantle and reprogram my hiring algorithms, as there was an obvious disconnect between the algorithms I was using and the success of teachers that I hired.
What variables are left out of many of our algorithms? Life experiences, personal situations, anecdotal evidence, past and present context, life journeys. Simply put, many don’t take into account human factor. And if they do, the weight of importance is typically unbalanced. As I became a more experienced leader, I became more interested in hearing someone share with me a specific obstacle they faced and whether or not they were able to overcome it, rather than someone checking off the “problem-solver” skill checkbox. What did a story tell me? Determination. Resilience. Humility. Problem-based thinking and solution finding. Character. It allowed me to see them as a human first and understand the context in which they were applying for a position.
As hiring season approaches, now is the time to disrupt, dismantle and reprogram our algorithms to be more human-centric. I am well aware that there are many organizational, operational, and country-specific elements that hiring teams must consider when hiring future educators. I lived it. The key is to create a hiring algorithm that is inclusive, human-centered, and that ensures that we do not disenfranchise others regardless of our constraints. Here are some important steps to consider when beginning the work:
Identify and dismantle Institutional Bias in algorithms
The school mission, purpose, values, and beliefs are the core of the institution. Those elements must drive everything that the organization does, including who, and how, it hires. There must be congruence between the core elements of the school and the hiring algorithm. Begin by identifying, unpacking, and truly understanding the core elements. Next, critically identify, unpack, and understand the school's hiring algorithm. Look for congruence between the two and where there are disconnects. Ask and reflect: Are we being true to our core values in the construction of our hiring algorithms and in our hiring process? In order to achieve congruence, we must analyze the disconnects and identify and weed out the institutional biases that exist.
If the institutional mission speaks to “fostering and promoting global citizenship,” yet the school’s algorithm focuses on hiring primarily native English speakers as classroom educators, there is a disconnect between the institutional mission and the hiring algorithm. If the purpose statement of the school speaks to “building an inclusive environment where diversity is valued,” yet the hiring algorithm doesn’t include intentional parameters to hire candidates that would help build inclusivity and diversity, there is a disconnect between the school’s purpose statement and the hiring algorithm.
Bias exists in all of our institutions. The question is, how are we consistently identifying those biases and dismantling them so that we are not disenfranchising candidates and perpetuating the cycle? There must be an unbreakable correlation between the core elements of the institution and the staff that works each and every day to bring those elements to life.
Identify, unpack, and dismantle Personal Bias
We must do the work on a personal level. Whether we realize it or not, our personal biases overtly and covertly affect our hiring algorithms. The more in touch we are with our own biases, the more authentic and equitable we can be to the hiring process. We must engage in a process to identify our biases, unpack them, and then dismantle them. Without confronting and dismantling our personal biases, we cannot lay the foundation for a new personal framework and move forward justly. When we stop questioning and examining ourselves, we begin sliding backwards. We become complacent. We stop being intentional about how our thoughts and actions influence our algorithms, which can lead to the disenfranchisement of true talent. We must ask ourselves the question: How have my personal biases led me to disenfranchise others? Undertaking this personal journey and engaging in self reflective practices on a consistent basis are vital to ensure equitable hiring practices.
Reprogram with inclusivity
Use an inclusive process to dismantle and reprogram your hiring algorithm. Be intentional about involving an inclusive cross section of the community in the process. Again, be intentional about it. Look around. Who is seated around the table? How do the conversations around reprogramming create a safe space for sharing? Whose voices are being heard? Ask students (all students) what characteristics of their teachers they value and which attributes best support their personal growth as learners, and as humans. Ask parents and guardians what characteristics of teachers they value. Ask staff members what attributes they value in their fellow colleagues. As a group, ask yourselves: Do our teachers embody and reflect the mission and purpose of our school? Where are we falling short? How do we design an algorithm that is true to our mission, purpose, and values as a school community? How do we design an algorithm that doesn’t allow for the disenfranchisement of talent? The process of reprogramming the algorithm must model the inclusivity being sought after in the algorithm itself.
Test your reprogrammed algorithm
Use case studies of candidates to test out the reprogrammed hiring algorithm. Apply the algorithm to the case studies to find strengths and areas for improvement. Share the new algorithm with a critical friend outside of the organization to see the reaction, collect feedback, and make the necessary adjustments. Always be in the process of checking the validity of the algorithm. This will highlight possible improvements needed in the algorithm itself or in the hiring process. Testing the algorithm will also illuminate areas where the institution is being successful and holding true to its core values.
Redesign the hiring process with intentionality
Once the algorithm has been tested and is in place, turn the focus to the hiring process. Redesign the hiring process with intentionality. Important questions to reflect on when designing or evaluating the hiring process: Where and how do we advertise position openings? How does the language in the position descriptions promote inclusivity, equity, and alignment with the school’s core elements? With what processes, criteria, and parameters do we screen candidate applications and resumes? What questions are we asking candidates during the interviews? How are those questions designed? For whom are they designed? Does our process create safe spaces for candidates to share their stories? The most important factor is to deliberately analyze and ensure that the hiring process is human-centered and aligned to the reprogrammed hiring algorithm.
Use a team approach
Include an inclusive group of voices in the hiring process. One of the first steps I took as a new administrator was to change the practice of hiring unilaterally. I was intentional about adding voices to the process. This can pose challenges in the fast-paced recruitment world, but look for opportunities to engage others in the process. There have been several times where my teammates challenged my thinking about a candidate, which pushed me to reflect on my personal biases and perspectives, as well as my lack of alignment to our institutional hiring algorithm. A team approach creates a check and balance system to make sure we are true to our algorithm. Working as a team also reinforces a collective accountability to the mission and purpose of the institution and allows us to avoid potential pitfalls by making sure we are staying true to the reprogrammed algorithm and process.
I am not an expert in hiring, but I am human. I believe that in order to understand the human condition, we must engage in processes that provide space and opportunity for self reflection on our thoughts and actions and the impact they have on others. The more human-centered our hiring algorithms and processes are, the more we can truly understand and connect with our candidates and the less likely we are to disenfranchise true talent.