Hiring and promoting are broken systems that emphasize hunches and gut feelings over facts, allowing unconscious bias to run rampant. And it’s not just about giving everyone a fair shot, says Laura Mather, founder and CEO of Unitive, diverse teams are better at their jobs. “If you only hire people you want to hang out with, then you’re not going to have innovative solutions to problems because any time a problem comes up all of the people in the room will see the same solution,” Mather says. “And that’s great for cohesiveness, but it’s not good for actual performance.”
Laura Mather is out to solve this problem. How? With software, of course. And if there’s someone who can solve the bias problem at work with code, it’s Mather. In the past, she’s has tackled big challenges in security and information for the NSA, Ebay, and Encyclopedia Britannica. In 2008, she launched her first startup, Silver Tail, a cybersecurity company that focused on fraud and phishing and sold to RSA in 2012. Unitive, Mather’s newest startup, uses clever software solutions to remove the irrelevant distractions that have a tendency to unconsciously sway personnel decisions.
Mather is an Everwise mentor, and today we’re focusing on her work at Unitive and what they’ve discovered about bias in hiring and promoting. Next week, we’ll discuss what it was like to work at the NSA, Mather’s experiences on both sides of mentorship, and how those experiences have shaped her career.
You have a really interesting and varied background. What drives you?
I’ve always wanted to make sure my career changes the world for the better. When Silver Tail was acquired, it gave me a moment to think about how I could impact the world even more and in 2012 it seemed to me like equality, or diversity, or whatever name you want to use, was one of the next big humanitarian challenges that we would be addressing globally. I decided that I want to take on that challenge. So it makes very little sense if you say, “Okay you were in security and then you moved into HR,” but I didn’t see very many people using technology to try and solve these problems. To be honest Everwise was one of the first companies that I came across that did this and that was fantastic, it was a real inspiration for me. We can use technology to make some of these things that are not very scalable, more scalable.
Did the idea come from being in these in the male-heavy world of tech?
It was a little bit of that. But to be honest the bigger part of it was that at Silver Tail, our very early engineering team was diverse in a non-traditional way. They were all white men, but we didn’t have anybody who came from an Ivy League school, there were seven people on the team and only one of them had a computer science degree, and he was the manager, he wasn’t even allowed to code. Everybody else came out of physics, or linguistics — one guy didn’t even graduate high school. We had several people who came from blue-collar backgrounds, one guy had grown up in a cult. Because they all had such varied backgrounds, they were able to solve the most interesting problems.
In the past when I worked with teams who all had Bachelors or Masters degrees in computer science from Cal, Poly, Stanford, and Harvard, they executed on the plan they were taught and things always moved in exactly the progression they were supposed to move. When something came up that was impossible, it really was impossible for them. Whereas on the Silver Tail engineering team, there were several times I got the team together and said, “You need to figure out a way to do this.” And they said, “That’s impossible.” And two days later they’d go, “I think I have a prototype that does it.” They all had these different perspectives and they would throw out ideas that traditionally trained computer scientists would never think of. They would build off each other and we had these amazing results. So it became very clear to me that creating an image of what a particular position looks like can be really detrimental to the overall success of the group or company. I wanted to help organizations get past that.
If creating an image of what the perfect position should look like is problematic, how do you recommend companies go about hiring?
There are pattern matches that are fantastic and there are pattern matches that are detrimental. What I recommend is really understanding, ahead of time, what is important for the position. It’s totally fine to say, I’ve got Fred. I love Fred. Fred is fantastic at Heroku and Cassandra and he’s a great mentor, I need someone like that. And when you find a resume of someone who says, I’m fantastic at Heroku and Cassandra and I’ve mentored 12 people, that’s a great pattern match to make.
The issue is that our unconscious bias makes us susceptible to pattern matching that is much less relevant and it goes way beyond demographics; It could be gender, it could be race, but it could also be what sports team someone follows, it could be that you don’t like what shoes they’re wearing. All of these things influence us. What psychologists have found is there are ways that we can remind ourselves of what is important for the job and commit to it. If we do that we are much less likely to be biased by the things that are not relevant in the hiring decision itself.
Is the hiring process just innately flawed? Should we start over completely? Toss out resumes, cover letters, and interviews?
Our research shows that if we were to make all hiring decisions just based on resumes, we would make far better hiring decisions than we do today. What happens is most of the time the interviewer asks themselves: Would I want to hang out with this person? But we couch that around how they’d fit into the company culture? The research shows that if we were to do hiring just on algorithms, from maybe having someone take a test, we would end up with much better hires. But hiring managers are never going to allow that because hiring managers often feel like they are fantastic at hiring by gut.
So the most effective solution is impossible to sell?
When you’re creating a solution, if the people who have to use it are going to hate it, that’s not going to work. So when we built Unitive, we needed to make sure hiring managers felt that they were in complete control. We help them focus on what’s really relevant. It’s relevant to look at somebody’s skill set, especially if you when you can’t see the name of the person, where they went to school, or whether or not they play lacrosse. We are helping hiring managers focus on what is relevant so that the decisions really are meritocratic instead of mirror-tocratic.
Some larger companies like Pandora, Google, and Facebook have focused more on promoting diversely than hiring diversely. Do you find one is more effective than the other?
This is such an overarching problem that I don’t think we can say one part of it is more impactful than the other, I think they are all necessary. Unitive will launch our promotional and development suite in the first half of next year, so we are doing the same thing with promotion and performance reviews that we’ve done with hiring. We take the psychological findings and put them into a system so you can disrupt that disruptive bias. The one place I worry a little bit about are the companies that focus on the pipeline, they say they can solve the problem if they just get more diverse candidates. And I worry that if those candidates can’t get past the resume review or the interview phase because of the bias, that the return on investment will not be as good as it could be if people understand that there are issues beyond the pipeline.
We talked a little bit about how interviews can be extremely bias heavy. Do you encourage clients to toss out interviews completely?
I’d love to tell them to forget it all completely, but most hiring managers say, there’s no way they’ll hire somebody unless they’ve spent time with the person. So what our system does is, during the interview, we are constantly reminding the interviewer what is important for the job, that whether or not you want to hang out with this person is totally irrelevant to these decisions. And it’s interesting because I definitely get pushback on the culture fit. People use the term “culture fit” as a way to veto without any repercussions. I heard an example of an interviewer who sent an email to the hiring manager that said, “Don’t hire this person, they’re not a Red Sox fan.” I mean, that’s not a protected class, but it’s still a problem.
What about generational biases? There are a lot of companies that seem to be hiring mostly younger employees.
Yeah, so a great example of this is the ageism lawsuit against Google. I think at Google the average age is 29. There was a woman who was contacted by Google’s recruiters on four separate occasions. They said, “You look like an amazing engineer, you’re exactly what we need.” She always passed the phone interview with flying colors, but then whenever she went in to interview, they turned her back right away and said, “We’re sorry you’re not a fit.” It turns out she was over 50. But they kept reaching out to her. So it was very clear that it had something to do with her appearance, that she was not of the age that they were used hiring. Then you get the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world who claim young people are smarter, and it creates a culture. There are some really interesting things going on in job descriptions, like they say, “We only hire digital natives,” which, you know, you have to be under a certain age to qualify. Or they say, “We only hire high-energy types,” trying to get around the legal implications.
What’s your biggest obstacle in trying to tackle this?
One of the biggest places where hiring is broken is the communication between the recruiter and hiring manager. The recruiter tends to need much more information than the hiring manager has time to give. We’re creating a platform that helps them communicate more efficiently, so recruiters can focus on the technical skills. And so, in the end, you’re going to end up with hires that are much more merit-based, which means that teams are going to be more diverse, and then, I believe, in five or 10 years CEOs will be more diverse. I also believe that then startup founders will become more diverse, because in my experience a lot of startup founders jump off of Fortune 1000 companies at the director or senior director level. So if I can make that pool more diverse I can make startup founders more diverse. And then maybe, this is a long reach, 15 years from now venture capitalists will be more diverse, because they often come from startup founders. So the world just gets to be a better place. I have no dreams short of that.
Tune in next week for part two of our interview with Laura, where we explore how mentorship has helped shape her career path.