18 September 2017

Innovative Like Me: Best Practices for Writing Unbiased Job Ads

Below is a post @anthrolens blogger @JennLong3 wrote on LinkedIn. In this post, I write about diversity and bias in Canadian job ads.


While drinking coffee this morning, I came across a job ad for an internship at a Toronto-based subsidiary of a FP500 Corporation.

In addition to one’s resume, cover letter, and copy of transcripts, the employer asked for:

  1. An overview of projects the applicant had worked on in the past - be they work or school-related or a personal project;
  2. Two in-depth case studies about any of these projects which highlight the process, insights or design principles, the output generated, challenged encountered; and,
  3. A list of the top three books or articles with the biggest influence on their practice and a description of why they’re important to the applicant.

For such a tall order, the employer explained their wishes:

They wanted to understand ‘how the applicant worked’ because ‘the documentation process was just as important to the final product’. They also requested that applicants provide specific details about their methods and frameworks because they were interested in understanding the why and the how of their process.

As a Communications instructor for the W. Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology – I saw myself mic drop and walk away from this glorious display of the importance of communication in technical fields. This sophisticated call for applicants helped prove the importance of many topics covered in my class including: project documentation, reading widely in one’s field, the importance of discipline-specific vocabulary, putting theory into practice, self-reflection during project work, tailoring documents to specific audiences…I could go on.

In the end however, the ad stated ‘feel free to use whatever format or length…’ to showcase the applicants work. That’s where I stopped.

I teach my students that there are prescribed methods of communication in Canadian workplaces; that is, whether they know it or not, workplace correspondence and documentation follows long-standing formats of technical and professional communication. To do otherwise slows down progress, creates confusion, and has the potential to ruin work relationships. In class, we learn about direct and indirect writing styles, best practices of professional communication, and more. I tell my students that in following these best practices, they will get more done and make a better career for themselves.

The brief overview request aside, how should we teach students to write case studies and describe their favorite book without returning to the genre of essay writing or book reports that they left behind in primary or secondary school? Do the employers think their applicants will have sufficient expertise to write a business case study? If so, what are the implications of sharing such intellectual property during a job search process?

Perhaps this open-ended request is a symptom of the creative industry, that is, that they want to see what applicants can come up with; yet, there remain standards for communication in all workplaces that the intern will have to follow. Will they end up with a creative soul who can't interact professionally with a client? In a more practical sense, do they want to read thousands of book reports? (Obvious answer: No, you don't) As someone who has faced stacks of essays and literature reviews, it was those well organized, efficiently written (length requirements be damned) submissions which caught my eye and won out.

As a social science scholar teaching in STEM, I’m often struck by the ‘isms’ of Canadian workplace culture that bubble to the surface in everyday practice. In this case, I imagine that such a job ad would locate an applicant whose creative expression matched the recruiter's and whose well-loved book list matched their own. It begs the question: Is this the best way to source an applicant? In a word, no. Innovation – a word sprinkled throughout the ad – does not come from sycophantic following but productive conflict, i.e. difference in thought, in life experience, in world view. Written as such, this ad reflects the implicit bias found in the Canadian hiring process (see Ottawa Citizen, the Star) where employers hire similar and like-minded employees - and so the inequitable hiring and promotion cycle continues.

If you want an applicant who knows about the design process – why not have a quiz to test their individual knowledge? If you want to see creativity in practice, why not have a second stage where culled applicants respond to a past company project filled with real world issues. This would allow them to respond to situations from the brainstorming to production phase. Along the way, ask them to reflect on why they made the decisions they did, and how they would deploy their methods. Otherwise, include a template of a case study to level the playing field (and limit the page count). If you want different thinking, why limit creative knowledge to books and articles – a genre biased toward a particular readership? Instead, suggest potential interns submit a photo and write 250 words as to how this photo inspires their perspective on innovation or design practice.

In the end, I advocate the same thing to employers as I do to my students. Write reflectively, in a manner that considers the audience’s needs and which follows best practices of workplace communication. To do less, creates unproductive communication and has the potential to stymie innovative work processes.