Impostor syndrome and hiring power

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

What are some ways in which I can avoid rejecting people who suffer from impostor syndrome when they apply for a job?

I’ve recently been promoted to a position where I’m somewhat responsible for hiring people. I would like to increase the diversity of new hires, and so I’m more likely to put applications from women through to the interview stage.

Following that though I don’t want to lose out on quality applicants as they are modest about their achievements and abilities, due to impostor syndrome or otherwise.

Giving an automatic “+10 kickass” to every female applicant as they may suffer from impostor syndrome seems to be a strategy without much merit. Getting everyone to exhibit their full potential is clearly the better solution.

Can you suggest interview strategies that would create the environment in which women (and indeed anyone) will be better able to convince me of their suitability for the role?

I don’t have so many specific interview strategies, but I’ve got plenty of ideas for hiring strategies in general, I hope you can adopt some of them and perhaps our commenters can talk about the interview.

First, a should be obvious: a +10 kickass bonus may be illegal discrimination in your geographic area. If it is, definitely don’t do that.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about soliciting applications. Now, there’s a couple of things that stop some women at this point. First, there’s a tendency to regard themselves as underqualified for perfectly suitable jobs. Next, there’s concern that they needn’t bother, as a woman’s name will cause you to discount their resume. Some suggestions:

  1. get your signalling right. You want to say “women friendly employer” in your advertisements without discriminatory pro-women statements. This at least gets you past the “I’m not a man” part of impostor syndrome. Here’s some things you should be doing:
    • advertising all relevant open positions on a women’s job list such as, say, LinuxChix’s jobposts for open source jobs. This at least shows that you aren’t actively avoiding women applicants.
    • including on your full ads the “equal opportunity” boilerplate you might be able to find on other local job ads
    • including information on the “Careers” section of your website about your carer leave, your retirement contributions, your shared sick leave pool, your friendliness to part-time employees if any of these hold

    Not only are these things attractive to many women (and yes, some men as well) in and of themselves, they also signal in various ways that when you picture your new hire, the picture isn’t young, white, able-bodied, male, etc etc.

  2. if your employer has recently had a similar (especially perhaps slightly more junior) position available, get the resumes of the people who were considered the better applicants from the hiring manager, HR person or recruiter, and re-consider them for the new position (probably there would need to be some kind of process of tracking and perhaps re-application here, but I’ll handwave that problem to you).
  3. consider internal employees in more junior positions as potential applicants. Depending on the size of the company, other managers might be able to recommend people to you who are overqualified for their position (or possibly not, if they are getting good work from them)
  4. consider whether you really need experience that skews very very male. For example, does someone have to have open source development experience? Are there alternative ways that someone could have learned the skills you need?

And now for considering applications prior to interview:

  1. you may not be able to say you’re doing this, but in order to avoid bias on the basis of gender or other demographic characteristics, for as long as possible in the process keep names off resumes. Have names and addresses scraped from resumes by someone before you see them, and do as much ranking as you can prior to finding out the names and details of the applicants.
  2. avoid judgements about cultural fit at this stage.
  3. there are reasons companies rely on the recommendations of existing employees, but for each open position, try and select some applicants for interview who didn’t come in via the company networks in order to avoid duplicating your company’s present demographic by hiring all their friends

In the interview itself here is a strategy for getting people to talk about their successes when they are susceptible to impostor syndrome (note that any candidate might be part of an oppressed group, so don’t limit these to women candidates): ask about something the candidate did that benefited someone else. How did they save their company money or helped a team member learn what they needed to know? Present them with cooperative scenarios where they need to help you or your employer do something as well as or instead of competitive scenarios where they need to prove they are the single right person for the position. If anyone can flesh this out to specific example questions in the comments, that would be useful.

I strongly recommend reading Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever for good solid information both about women’s negotiation and self-promotion strategies and why they use those strategies, namely, that competitive and aggressive interpersonal strategies are simply not effective for most women because of negative responses to perceived aggression in women.

12 thoughts on “Impostor syndrome and hiring power

    1. Trix

      I’ve been in IT for nearly 13 years, been on a number of mailing lists, not to mention Internet fora of various descriptions, and this is the first time I’ve heard of the Systers list. How depressing.

  1. Mike H

    Interview-wise, I might focus on asking the candidate to do some sort of challenging tasks appropriate to their job…rather than the historical (“tell me a time when you…”) or abstract/nonsensical (“why are manhole covers round”). You want to establish a good rapport with candidates before as they do this and of course focus on the process of how they think rather than looking for a specific solution.

    Having a concrete really cool thing the candidate did in the interview to talk about will really make for a persuasive argument for why he/she should be hired. Notably, it will allow you to overcome the BS-objections of your colleagues…historical or non-actual-job-related questions tend to really just be tests of how “likable” the candidate is. And (what a surprise!) people find others from similar backgrounds a lot more “likeable” than people that would help improve your diversity.

    1. John

      The historical questions probably have to be worded carefully, although I think they’re probably still worthwhile (they let the interviewee show what they’re capable of doing outside of the interview situation with its pressures). For example, “Tell me about some really cool work you’ve done” might not bring out the best in someone with impostor syndrome (who thinks that nothing he/she has done is really cool), whereas “What was the hardest bug you’ve ever fixed?” or “What was your most satisfying piece of work ever?” might bring someone forward a bit.
      But still, I’d put more emphasis on the technical questions in the interview. And of course, depending on who the candidate has worked for in the past, some might have to answer historical questions with “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you”!
      BTW men can get impostor syndrome too, so any corrections for it have to apply to both sexes.

  2. highlyeccentric

    Perhaps asking how… questions before why questions may help?

    Let’s say you want to find out whether your candidate makes a good team leader. You could ask them that up front, but some candidates may be put off by the YOU, GOOD part. Asking “how do you handle… x” or “what are your priorities as a team leader” would get them to describe their skills, which you could then follow up with “why do you think that makes you effective”.

    I know the answers I gave in my first professional interview on the research skills question “what are some of the considerations [organisation] will have to take into account in [y study]” got a very different (and no doubt more helpful) answer for the interviewers than “why would you be good at research work”.

    1. G

      The more specific an interview question is the better. The BS artists (the opposite of impostor syndrome people) excel at the vague “Tell me about yourself” or “Where would you like to be in 5 years” questions. Ask about specific topics or projects you see in the applicant’s resume, and follow up with more questions like “And how did you handle that problem?” or “Why did you choose that particular approach/technology in this case?”.

      This gets you past any initial shyness or avoidance of bragging and into the details which are much more interesting, much more indicative of the applicant’s knowledge and skills, and much easier for the shy or self-deprecating applicant to talk about.

  3. Restructure!

    Yes to masking demographic information from resumes, and interviews with standardized tests, such as coding questions.

    No to “rate your skill level in X” questions on applications. No to so-called “casual” interviews, which just encourage subjective evaluation and discrimination.

  4. G

    And about the “tendency to regard themselves as underqualified for perfectly suitable jobs”: Be sure that your job description correctly describes the true job requirements.

    If you need an experienced person say that. Don’t say you need a rock star.

    If you have a list of skills you’re interested in, make sure that you very clearly state which ones are required and which ones are ‘nice to have’.

    Ask someone in the field but outside your specialty to quickly read the listing and tell you what kind of person and at what level they think you’re looking for. You may find you’re describing the job as more than it is.

    1. Catherine

      Yes, this! I’ve been both described AS a “rock star” and applied for jobs where that was one of the phrases in the opening…and it sucks. Neither let me come to work drunk or stride in at noon and throw my coat to the receptionist. False advertising! :)

      But really, terms like that in our industry promote a degree of independence that simply isn’t favourable in most work environments. I’d hire an “experienced developer” or a “team player” above a “rock star” any day.

      1. G

        I’ve got no objection to the term ‘rock star’ in a job description if the company is really looking for someone at Guido’s level to do their Python work or Matz’s level to do their Ruby work. If they use overblown terms like that when they’re really hiring a reasonably experienced Python or Ruby developer to do moderately challenging work they’re giving the wrong impression of the level of expertise they want.

        Besides implying that teamwork is not necessary, as Catherine said.

  5. Angelica

    How about giving them time to think quietly after each question? The norm for technical questions is to have the interviewee “think aloud” from start to finish. Someone with impostor syndrome confidence may start out with “I’m not sure, but…” or “I don’t really know…”, even if they can get the answer in the end. Compare this with someone who starts out confidently (even if they don’t know right away, either) and also gets the answer in the end. Should the latter person always be chosen?

    Giving some thinking time could remove this “opportunity” to divulge their uncertainty.

  6. Addie

    A little late to this but I find it an interesting question while I go through interviews of my own lately.

    My narrative about the role of my most recent job in my overall career development has been largely based on developing the all-around skills needed to work confidently and productively as a developer. I needed to understand everything from the frontend to the systems side and take ownership of all aspects of the process in order to feel like I really knew what I was doing. And now I’m ready to jump into more sophisticated, niche, granular work, instead of being a jack-of-all-trades.

    One of the things that surprised me was how awkward this came off when explaining it to people who were just meeting me. And then it struck me that a lot of this was framed in the context of building confidence, and the knowledge that a lack of confidence was the biggest thing holding me back as a developer in my first two years in industry. And this is a concept that is utterly foreign to the majority of programmers. So although I see it as something that has made me a much stronger all-around programmer, and something I am proud of, it just sounds odd to people who have never given a thought to Impostor Syndrome – or have any familiarity with it. I don’t know if it’s hurt me in any respect, but it *has* struck me that my narrative is hitting as very unfamiliar, and it honestly shouldn’t for a female programmer. I feel torn about toning down the value of my confidence-building and sticking to the authenticity of my story; I really do believe it has made me a better developer.

    To that degree, just learning about Impostor Syndrome, and knowing it exists, puts some potential employers head and shoulders above others. I suspect that the unfamiliarity of “learning confidence” as part of the narrative for some programmers may lead others to dismiss them out of hand, just because they’re hearing about a concept that doesn’t resonate with them. So many developers seem to be so eager to protect against the over-confident that the other possibility never crosses their minds.

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