What You’re Really Saying When You Talk About Lowering the Bar in Hiring
Updated: Aug 16, 2018
This post was originally published on at medium.com/@laurawp on February 10, 2016 and is reproduced here with light edits.
I give a lot of interviews. And I’m getting pretty good at thinking on my feet, weaving my talking points into answers to reporters’ questions, staying positive and on message, and dropping in a few pithy phrases that might work as sound bites. But the other day, I was off my game. I was sick, and when I’m sick, my brain slows down. It was an on camera interview. The reporter asked a question, and before my brain had time to catch up, my mouth had already started moving. And that’s how I got caught on camera saying the r-word… Racist.
The reporter was asking about a sentiment I’ve heard countless times in the years since we started Code2040. “If there are qualified blacks/Latinos/women/etc out there, we’d love to hire them — but we’re not going to lower the bar.”
On days when I am feeling charitable, I can try to empathize with the speaker. After all, what he or she is trying to say is, “I’m not racist! I don’t care about skin color. I care about ability!” But what he or she is actually saying could not be more different.
(An aside: Lest, as you read on, you think I set up the phrasing above as a straw man, take a look at Sequoia partner Michael Moritz’s recent comments about hiring women in tech. Cool.)
The truth is, my blood pressure rises with the first word of that sentence: “If there are qualified minorities out there…” That word “if” means that you believe it is completely possible, if not probable, that there are no qualified people of color in existence for you to hire in the first place.
By the fourth word, “qualified,” I’m gritting my teeth. Because of course there is no question that there are minorities out there — the question raised by the statement is not their quantity but their quality. Or lack thereof. If it is not obvious why this is upsetting, consider this: “If there are qualified white people/men out there, we’d love to hire them” is a sentence you have probably never heard anyone say, because their quality as a group doesn’t need to be proven, it is assumed.
We can move past “we’d love to hire them” pretty quickly, since hiring isn’t about what you’d love to do, but about what you actually do.
However, it’s worth spending a moment on the implications of the oft-uttered phrase “we’re not going to lower the bar.” There are a few things wrong with this. First, it’s problematic to think you have to lower the bar to hire people of color (see: the discussion of “qualified” above).
But second, and even more telling, is the implication in that statement that you have to defend yourself against others who want you to lower the bar. I don’t know anyone seriously dedicated to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace who believes in relaxing hiring standards for people from different racial/ethnic/gender backgrounds. Hiring people of color is not charity work and a belief that diversity is giving back to me smacks of paternalism.
The third problem with the statement “we’re not going to lower the bar” is the presumption that there is an actual, objective, predefined bar with clear methods for measuring against it. Hiring is not that scientific. Barely-trained individuals get large amounts of leeway to weigh in on candidate qualifications based on surface level impressions. Interviewers reject based on things like “culture fit” that are often left undefined. The same candidate may get rejected at one company and snapped up at another for a similar role.Does the hiring decision reflect the candidate, the interviewer, or the company? All three. “The bar” and who clears its hurdle says just as much about the company and the interviewer representing it as it does the candidate applying for the role.
Back to that on camera interview. The reporter asked me about the idea of “lowering the bar” and the r-word popped out. “I believe that the assumptions underlying that statement are racist.” As my brain caught up to my mouth I had an internal “oops.” I don’t like the r-word generally — it’s divisive in a conversation that is best served by being inclusive. But as I reflected on my statement, I realized that I believed what I was saying, and I should stand by the logic behind it if not the word choice.