Let’s Break it Down | What Does Jeopardy Have to do With Corporate Hiring Practices?

Evelyn Carter, PhD
Dr. Evelyn Carter
Articles

Identity politics. The “race card.” The “[insert group you’re working to minimize here] agenda.” Usually, when I hear these phrases, the speaker has an almost palpable sense of fatigue and annoyance. I can almost script the next line out of their mouths: “Why does everything have to be about ___?”

Have you had a similar experience? Or maybe you’ve even been the one to say that phrase or ask that question. The reality is, our backgrounds and identities powerfully shape the way we experience the world around us. Not only that, but the current systems that govern many facets of our daily lives (where we live, where we buy our groceries, who writes and enforces our laws) have roots in decisions made long ago by people in power who were eager to retain that power. While it can be hard to see those connections, I’m finding that more and more of my corporate clients are eager for information that helps connect the past to the present. They feel a sense of urgency around championing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts now that can help create a better future.

But, where do we start? So much happens in our world that it can be hard to engage with and process it all. So, I’m here to help. Every couple weeks, I’ll take a story that’s getting a lot of traction in news and popular conversation and illuminate the larger systemic patterns at work. And, because I’m a data geek, I’ll connect the dots using some of my favorite studies. No matter what, I’ll always wrap up with some suggestions for what that story can teach us about how to take a different, modern, and effective approach to corporate DEI. Subscribe here if you would like to updated when these blogs publish, and keep reading for my first post exploring what we can learn from Jeopardy host hiring controversy. 

Toward the end of last year, the talk of the Twitter town was who was hired as the new host of Jeopardy. After weeks of test runs with guest hosts like Buzzy Cohen, Robin Roberts, and Mayim Bialik, Mike Richards was selected to replace Alex Trebek. Putting aside questions of whether Mike was the most qualified person for the role, it’s clear that, to put it simply, the optics were … not great. From what was otherwise a fairly diverse pool of candidates, the show runners ended up going with a straight, White, male insider (Mike was an executive producer on Jeopardy). Indeed, as Matt Brennan noted in an LA Times article, “the upset around Richards’ selection is as much about the process as it is about his ability to step into the role — and what that process says about how Hollywood has and has not changed after years of conversation about white male privilege in the industry on the one hand, and a serious lack of diversity on the other.” The racial and gender dynamics of an insider White man winning the prize above others in a fairly diverse pool of candidates (most notably fan favorite and my personal childhood fave LeVar Burton) was the source of skepticism as well; folks wondered whether this was another example of empty diversity promises.

I actually want to put aside the question of whether Mike Richards is the most qualified candidate, and instead focus on a more important theme: the fact that, seemingly, the Jeopardy producers and the general public didn’t know for sure that he was. The opportunity here was huge. Jeopardy is one of the most elite quiz shows in the US, and intelligence is still a characteristic most commonly ascribed to men (particularly White men). The power of having someone from outside that group be the person invited into Americans’ homes every evening, asking questions, being witty and a bit shady, could not be overstated. Instead, Jeopardy went with the conventional choice, and couldn’t even really back up the decision. And it stung.

To me, this parallels what I see a lot in corporate hiring. Many of the organizations I work with are dominated by White men, and their hiring patterns reflect this. Yet, those same organizations have made commitments, to the public and to their employees, to hire, and retain, more folks of color. And so, when time and time again, they continue to hire White men to fill open roles, they need my help explaining the choice to the employees who are asking questions. They assure me that the White man they hired was the most qualified, but need help proving that. My answer to them is always the same: if you’re waiting until the end of the process to find proof that you’ve made the right call, you’ve already made a huge mistake.

Being in a place to react and prove that you did things right will always be a losing game. Instead, the way to instill confidence in your hiring process is to be proactive: create structured processes and hold everyone accountable to using them. What kind of structured processes do I recommend?

  • Ensure your hiring pool is meaningfully diverse. This is an area where I think Jeopardy did a pretty good job, but many companies I work with could do a lot better. Simply writing a job description and posting it on your website isn’t enough. Consider: are your recruiters sourcing people from marginalized groups? Are your employees referring folks who will contribute to the diversity of your organization? In most of the companies we work with at Paradigm, the referral pool is (a) far more homogeneous than any other source of applicants, and (b) the place where new hires most likely come from. Finally, who are the folks that are getting to the final interview stage? You might be familiar with the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” but newer research shows that just having one woman or person of color in a final round all but ensures they won’t get the job. To avoid this, put in the work to make sure that you’ve got strong candidates, that you might actually hire, from a variety of backgrounds/identities at that stage. And if you don’t have that configuration, wait to extend an offer until you do.
  • Clearly articulate the criteria for a “good” host. With the public involved in such an exciting decision, there were lots of different ideas about what “good” meant. Jeopardy viewers had one perspective, producers another, critics a third — the notes were probably endless. Similarly, in corporate hiring, every member of the hiring team may have a different idea of what makes for a good hire. This is why it’s a good idea to discuss these criteria ahead of time, agree on shared definitions, and establish questions you’ll use to assess candidates against those criteria. By the way, if Jeopardy’s goal was to reflect modern society with their host, I would have recommended adding a criterion around that. If diversifying your employee population is a goal, make that explicit in how you evaluate candidates.
  • Put all candidates through the same interview process. Everyone, whether they’re an internal or external candidate., needs to be evaluated the same way. In Jeopardy’s case, that might mean that every candidate hosts the same number of shows. In the corporate world, that would mean that every candidate goes through the same process — nobody gets to skip out on the take-home because they were referred by a senior leader, for example. Give each interviewer a set list of questions to ask candidates, and include a rubric against which they can evaluate the answers. Coach the interviewers to establish trust and rapport without relying on small talk, which can inject bias into the evaluation process. It will be impossible to control every variable, but keeping as much as consistent as possible is key. That way, when you’re comparing across candidates you’re reviewing the same data points.
  • Wait until interviews are done to discuss candidates. Okay, this one would probably have been impossible for Jeopardy to apply, but it’s definitely right for corporate hiring. It can seem tempting to finish an interview and share your perspective with someone else on the hiring team. However, even passing comments can influence your colleague and shape the way they interpret the candidate’s responses once they get into the interview. Interviews are already rife with potential for bias; you want your colleagues to go into the interview with each candidate as neutral as possible. Help this by saving your conversation about candidates for the group debrief meeting.

These strategies apply to any open role within a company, and applying them consistently can help instill confidence that the folks you hire are undoubtedly the best for the job. While it may be a little too late for Jeopardy, it’s not too late for you!

 

February 1, 2022

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