Avoiding Bias in our Job Interviews with Scripts & Personas

Using a script

I hate the idea that we might miss hiring an awesome teammate at Atomic Object — especially if we lose the opportunity for a stupid reason like an unintentional bias in our interview process. Several of us recently read Thomas Ptacek’s post about fixing broken developer interviews, which has spurred our efforts to improve our ability to gather consistent, concrete, unbiased information about candidates throughout Atomic’s hiring process.

As a result, we’ve added two things to our toolbox that we believe are helping avoid harmful bias in our interview process: an interview script, and personas.


This post is the third in a series about addressing unconscious bias and making Atomic a more rewarding place for everyone to work.

 

Interview Script

Atomic Object started using a detailed script for 90-minute interviews about six months ago. We previously had a rough script for phone interviews to make sure we hit a few key points and asked questions in a handful of general areas, but it was up to the interviewers to come up with the specific questions and gauge the answers.

Our new script prescribes specific questions, and interviewers stick to the script for the 60 minutes or so it takes to complete. Rather than complaining about the removal of personal freedom from the process, I was impressed when several Atomic developers mentioned that they liked having the script because it gave them confidence that they were asking relevant questions. Furthermore, the company gains a lot of consistency from the script.

Consistency in Atomic’s interview process helps us with a number of important goals:

  1. The script helps us remove unfair bias from our interactions with candidates. We want to hire people who are the best fit for our work, and crafting the questions ahead of time gives us a chance to weed out unimportant or unfairly biased questions.
  2. Asking the same questions helps us evaluate more consistently. We ask everyone the same questions so we can compare them more objectively against a set of expectations. The more we ask these questions, the better we get at judging the answers.
  3. We can more easily promote broad participation in our hiring process because it is easier for new Atoms to step into the interviewer’s role. The script guides the conversation and helps ensure that we get value out of the interaction every time.
  4. Those of us managing the hiring process know what questions have been asked of our candidates. That might seem like a small detail, but it is extremely helpful as more questions come up during the process. We have a record of where a candidate’s responses were strong and where they have opportunity to grow.
The script also offers time for open Q&A, but that’s less for evaluation and more to help candidates and Atomic interviewers get to know each other.

We’ve found that the script has improved interviewer confidence, reduced stress, and helped us more consistently evaluate candidates during the brief 90 minutes we have with them. It’s something we’ll continue.

Personas

In addition to the script, we created a few personas that illustrate attributes we like to see in candidates with different degrees of experience. Like the script, these help us consistently evaluate against criteria that we’ve thoughtfully put together and reviewed as a group. Being open and clear internally gives us more opportunity to discuss potential bias and refactor to drive out any wording or expectation that would mistakenly keep us from hiring an awesome new Atomic team member.

Below are handful of non-technical attributes noted on our developer personas — things that will prove valuable to both Atomic and the candidate working as a consultant.

Leads & Influences Teammates

Being consultants, we expect to be leaned on as leaders. Developers at Atomic lead projects, advise on project scope and schedule, help select good tools for the job at hand, and lead development of features in an application. I love to hear that previous teammates have looked to a candidate to fill these roles in the past, or that the candidate has recognized the need for leadership and filled that gap. We hire developers who can operate in a leadership role and be effective, not necessarily those who aggressively pursue that position.

Shows Awareness of Strengths & Weaknesses

Self-awareness is a huge asset. It can help keep egos in check in a team environment and open the door to learning & growth opportunities. When someone with an astute awareness of their skills and limits speaks with confidence, it carries an extra helping of reassurance. All good things in our domain as consultants.

We always ask two questions during the interview process that give us evidence of self-awareness:

  • In what area will your current skills and experience contribute most to the work you’d be doing at Atomic?
  • What aspects of working at Atomic will be the most challenging for you?

These questions also tell us whether a candidate really knows what we do, so we can help fill any knowledge gaps.

Tells Good Stories

Being able to tell a good story shows that they’ve learned from their experience. They consider it consequential and worth remembering. A “good” story to me is one that is specific, matches the topic of conversation, and is respectfully honest.

Teams Want Them

If I could ask only one question during a phone call with a candidate’s references: “Would you be eager to have this person working on your team again?” Each reference may be using their own subjective criteria to answer that question, but a few enthusiastic “yes” answers quickly becomes something concrete.