Equity Considerations in Virtual Interviews

With hiring processes moving online as a result of COVID-19, many are wondering how to ensure equity and inclusion in the selection process.

Certainly, interview processes will be significantly different, and new and different equity considerations apply. There is very little research on the subject of bias and if or how it shows up in virtual academic interviews.

The research that does exist, looks at videoconferencing as an additional screening step, usually prior to shortlisting for campus visits, and points to its benefits for non-traditional candidates who may not look as strong on paper but can demonstrate their abilities in a conversation. This topic is more broadly discussed in industry, and particularly in the tech sector, where video interviews and the use of screening algorithms are common. There, opinions are mixed, with some industry leaders arguing that the use of virtual technology de-biases the recruitment process and others arguing that it makes it less fair.

Of course, the current situation is unique not only because academic interviewing processes are moving online, but because they are moving online under the circumstances of a pandemic and resulting lockdown. Candidates are being considered for positions while they may be under exceptional stress.

As a growing body of research from US and Canada shows, candidates from some historically marginalized communities – in particular poor and racialized communities – are likely to be more severely negatively impacted. The individual context of candidates may be more consequential to their ability to perform well in interviews – particularly if they are care givers, people with disabilities, or living in situations where they have little control over their physical environment. More than any other time, it is important for selection committees to be alert to the differential realities for candidates, and to prioritize equity over equality.

With the above in mind, here are some tips for your search committee:

 1. As always, the best way to ensure fairness is to create a respectful, consistent, structured process centred around explicitly agreed upon criteria.

Establish the criteria early and build a common set of questions that you will ask of all interviewees to allow for objective comparison between them. If you are sending out information, instructions or interview questions in advance of the interview, ensure all candidates get them.

Engage with candidates in a warm and friendly way, however, avoid unstructured interview forms and resist  the casualization that can sometimes come with video meetings. If you interview some of your candidates virtually, be prepared to interview them all virtually regardless of when campus reopens and in person meetings are once again possible.

2. Balance the consistency and structured approach above with attending to the needs of individual candidates that require accommodation in order to be able to participate in the interviews.

Be as flexible and compassionate as you can. Note that acute or long- 2 term health conditions and disabilities, as well as parenting and other responsibilities to family or community, may mean that some candidates require unique interview schedules, broken up into small chunks of time, perhaps over several days. It might also mean that interview segments might be interrupted or need to be rescheduled.

The person making arrangements for interviews should provide candidates with an estimate of expected duration, schedule and components of the interview, and ask all candidates if they require any accommodations.  Do not inquire into the specifics of individual circumstances – you do not need to know their health condition or their childcare arrangement, you need to trust them on their needs and do your best to accommodate.

3. Convene your search committee ahead of time to coordinate how the interviews are to be
conducted under the current conditions.

Together, get familiar with the technology you will be using and build some agreements about how you will ask questions, indicate that someone has a follow up question, or make space for the candidate themselves to ask questions or signal that they are ready to move on.

4. Choose the most accessible remote technology and provide information on its use
to all interviewees ahead of the interview.

If there are particular conventions within the online environment you wish to use (e.g. ‘raising your hand’ in Zoom) share this in advance with the candidate.

5. Consider privacy issues and whether you need to record interviews or presentations.1

While videoconferencing applications have become norm during this time, there is no reason that all segments of your interview should be conducted via video. You can use the phone or teleconferencing for portions of your interview and there might be good reasons to do so.

6. The current lockdown situation means that most candidates will be meeting with you
from their homes, where they may or may not have the luxury of a private room.

They may even need to take the interview from a parking lot or another seemingly unusual place. There can be considerable anxiety associated with giving a search committee a glimpse into one’s home or physical context, and these anxieties are not unfounded. How people present online can subject them to bias, as suggested by the term Videoclassism of socio-economic status.

Ease candidates’ anxieties by inviting them to use a standard digital background (if their technology allows)  and conducting portions of the interview without video. More importantly, review the content on bias with your selection committee before you begin the interviews. Ensure you are collectively aware of the possibility  that what you see visually on the screen may lead you to make judgements based on a candidate’s appearance, the tidiness of their home, their level of organization, their familial interactions, what they can and cannot afford to own.

These elements should not have a bearing on your evaluation of a candidate. Become aware of even your most  subtle biases and tendencies to stereotype, so that you can notice when they colour your perception, and hold yourself and your colleagues accountable.

7. More than ever, it is important to separate ‘style’ from ‘content’ when you are listening to
and observing candidates virtually.

Cultural differences, wellbeing levels, comfort with technology, response to interruptions, and physical settings may have a huge impact on style and how a candidate is perceived, and it can distract us from the content the candidate presents.

Remember that you are assessing for content primarily, and in the deliberations challenge the comments from yourself and other selection committee members that over-emphasize style.

8. Given the additional layers of challenge described above, consider assigning an Equity Monitor
leadership role to someone on the search committee, whose role it would be to monitor the interviews and deliberations with an eye to possible bias.

The Equity Monitor should ideally be a senior member or Chair of the search committee. They can make selection committee members aware of the emergence of bias, and open a conversation that could protect the committee from falling into their biases.

Resist assigning this role to a junior colleague or someone who themselves may identify as marginalized – having to call in their colleagues can be risky.

9. Keep a healthy skepticism towards the concept of ‘fit’ in hiring.

When circumstances are uncertain, we tend to gravitate toward the familiar for safety and assurance. This goes against the principles of diversity and equity and can effectively act to reproduce the current profile of the department at the expense of historically under-represented candidates.

Consider the concept of ‘stretch’ instead of fit. Look for a candidate who is aligned in their values or approach to others in your department, but also provides a healthy extension, intellectually, methodologically, or culturally, that can enrich the life of the department and the work of the unit.

If you run into problems or could use a consultation on a specific selection process, please contact us at the Equity & Inclusion Office and we will do our best to help.

Other resources:

UBC HR’s memo on adjustments to the recruitment and hiring process in response to COVID-19 

UBC IT’s Zoom Video Conferencing Guidelines and Response to Zoom Privacy Concerns

  1. UBC IT currently notes that Zoom stores personal information on servers outside Canada. Under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA), it is acceptable to use Zoom provided that you use the following guidance:
  2. Participants should be informed that the Zoom servers are located outside Canada, and that they can maintain their privacy by logging in using only their first name or a nickname, turning off their camera, and muting their microphone.
  3. Staff who are using Zoom for sensitive discussions should not use the Record feature.