Diversity · Recruiting

Are employee referral programs killing diversity in tech?


July 16th, 2015

No secret that there is a lack of diversity in tech. There are many arguments for why this is and how to solve it. I’m not suggesting there is a silver bullet but a newer idea to help solve the issue is to stop employee referral programs. My thinking is that if your workforce is already lacking in diversity, their friends or the people they refer will likely be the same - bringing in more people that are similar to current employees. The tension is that the benefit of these programs is their ability to help you build a team - which is obviously important, but does that benefit outweigh the disadvantages enough to continue them even if they greatly reduce our chances of a diverse workforce? Would individuals actually stop using them?

Demelza Campbell Tech Workforce Program Manager/Recruiter at DOJ

July 16th, 2015

Sir, I did not bring up one minority group or another.  You did.

However, in that vein, to say that diverse groups that happen to uniquely be american are not discriminated against is an interesting perspective to have. 
I think its too easy to discuss systemic biases, rather lets continue the focus on the topic at hand:

If one person knows another person that he or she went to school with on one side of the river, and never bothered or considered crossing to the other side of the river because there was no interest or because they feel that the people should work to get over to the "right" side, then you have one view or perspective versus two perspectives.  Diversity includes experience as well as culture and/or background.

So, if  a person only refers those people he or she knows, there exists the possibility that those already in power or in the lead, may have a distinct advantage over others.
This affects any and all groups of people.

Hope this helps and truly, as it is meant only to provide my perspective as we are all here to learn from each other.

Thanks for the conversation.

Demelza Campbell Tech Workforce Program Manager/Recruiter at DOJ

July 16th, 2015

So this is a complicated question: I recruit individuals with technical skills and, to be honest, there are plenty of positively brilliant diverse men and women that are not hired owing to discriminatory practices that are so inherent they don't know they are there.

Referral systems are very much inherent to your network; therefore if your network is from the same 5 block radius that you have always been familiar with and never ventures over about 10 blocks, it is effectively out of sight and out of mind until it affects you. There are multiple organizations that have seen this and have coalesced around these kids who code in their free time, on their own and outside of silicon valley; organizations such as code2040.org or the national society of black engineers or the society of women engineers or blackgirlscode; they are developing the next generation of tech which is why tech companies are spending so much time recruiting directly from them.

I don't think that this thread was directed solely to blacks and hispanics per a previous comment, but the reality is that there are good candidates, they do exist and to state that they do not is missing the results of the last 20 years of internet and accessibility. There are more schools and groups and organizations and certifications and methodologies than UC Berkley.  A lot of tech individuals are self taught and/or gain certifications, therefore bypassing college altogether.

There are many reasons why referral systems are flawed; the aforementioned comments prove it.
Only hiring the people you know, from your limited circle and view of life, products, processes, etc., limits your ability to move forward. 

"Groupthink" is also a resulting issue.

I hope this makes sense.  Good conversation.

Benjamin Olding Former Co-founder, Board Member at Jana

July 18th, 2015

The topic of diversity is as difficult as it is important to discuss; I've valued reading this thread, even though it keeps drifting off topic, and I'd like to thank everyone who has contributed.  

I sympathize with @Dominique losing it a little bit: @Robert, your comments leave me uncomfortable as well.  In particular, the sentence "Please show me all of these great people that I am missing [...] I can make a fortune off that knowledge." is kind of problematic in a couple different ways.  You know the history of race and economics in this country, right?  No offense, but, truthfully - based on the comments you've made on this thread - I don't see myself introducing you to, well, anyone.  It's not for lack of knowing people.  You seem to have concluded that because you don't know certain types of people, they must not exist.  You might consider that they do very much exist... but they might not be so stoked to know you, or at least the "you" you are presenting in this thread (perhaps in real life you're not so polemic).  Employee #1 for us was a first-generation American from NM - parents moved to US from Bolivia.  Learned Linux on his own in high school in the early 90s, then worked for 10 years in tech in the bay area before joining us as the architect of all our back-end systems.  You seem self-confident, but you're honestly not presenting as well on this thread as you might think.

@Demelza - your handling of this thread has been great; you've stayed logical, respectful and clear in your writing at all points.  I admire what you've done here and look forward to further comments from you on threads with other topics as well. 

I'd like to add my own observations back on the original topic - whether employee referral programs specifically are a cause of low diversity in tech.  From what I've observed in my company, I believe the answer is "no." I do believe the results of referral programs are reflective of the wider lack of diversity, but unfortunately I do not believe the programs themselves are a causal mechanism, at least in my personal experience.  I sort of wish they were: it would be easier to address the problem.

@Demelza - I think your argument about referral programs is exactly right regarding it being a sampling of the social connections existing employees already have made.  However, it's not schools or neighborhoods that referral programs (in my experience) draw from - it's past work experiences.  Across the US, I do see segregated schools, segregated neighborhoods, and segregated social organizations.

What I do not see, however, is segregated tech companies, just low-diversity tech companies.  In some ways, that would almost be better than what we actually have in the tech industry: a mostly black tech company?  That would be kind of cool - and I think unusual - to see.  A mostly black church?  Everyone thinks that is normal.  Of course, there's likely an exception to what I'm saying, but what I'm trying to communicate is that I believe the lack of diversity in tech is pretty uniform - it's not just the industry as a whole, it's at the company level too.

If referral programs drew largely from people's school-based social connections, I could see the argument for the program itself being the underlying cause of the lack of diversity: the existing employees pull only from their schools, and if their schools are segregated off from broader America, then that segregation is going to be artificially reflected in the industry.  However, I think it's worse than that: the referral programs pull from the industry itself - it's not the cause of the lack of diversity, it's reflective of the state of industry.

As a result, I do not believe eliminating referral programs would change much, unfortunately, at least at our company.  We do not use referral programs to recruit junior people - we go directly to schools.  Our junior team reflects very much the diversity of local schools (we're in Boston) like Harvard, Brown, and BU.  These schools have systematically and consciously diversified their student body, and our junior tech team reflects that: we have benefited from those institutions' hard work.  By selecting them to recruit from, we didn't have to do too much work beyond that to have a pretty diverse crew.

Every tech team needs a diversity of work experience too, however - we need people with 10 years and 15 years experience working on the problems we face.  By definition, this segment of our team can only come from the industry.  In a full-employment situation like we have for senior web developers across the US, referral programs are invaluable - senior web developers are not actively looking for work: they have it.  We have to find them - unlike the junior team, they aren't looking for us.

If I thought tech companies were internally segregated, then I could again see how the referral program was the problem.  However, I have not observed that.  Our senior tech team largely comes from referrals.  It is (naturally) much smaller than the junior team, and it is definitely less diverse.  However, it's not uniformly white and the non-white members of our team all came through referrals from white members.  Further, several white members of the senior team came from non-white members.  So I don't see the referral mechanism artificially decreasing the ethnic diversity of our team: I do see it just reflecting the fact that if you take the population of individuals with 10-15 years web development experience, it seems like it's mostly white.  I think most of our senior web team (regardless of their personal ethnicity) have worked for most of their careers at tech companies that were mostly white.

I am encouraged by our junior team - in 10 years, they will be the senior team at another startup, and they are far more diverse than our current senior team.  So, I am optimistic, at least from my very limited experience at our small startup.  I'm impatient, I'm concerned, but I do have hope that time may be on the side of ethnic diversity in our industry.

What I am horribly depressed by is gender diversity.  Ethnic diversity has been very achievable today for us at the junior level without having to work too hard.  In contrast, gender diversity has absolutely eluded us.  We make the final interview decisions diversity-blind, but we recruit with different funnels - the goal is to do whatever it takes to make all recruiting stages prior to the final interview as diverse as possible.  Forget thinking about the interview or "qualifications": I couldn't even make the *top* of the recruiting funnel acceptably gender diverse, no matter what artificial tricks I tried.  Time does not appear to be on our side - if we do nothing, the industry appears to be headed towards being just as male in 10 years as it is today.  

My pet theory on how to deal with this is to diversify startup CEOs and have them work on the problem.  I don't necessarily know how to do this - I'm mostly just trying to make it someone else's problem I guess.  We really started 5 years ago with great intentions, and I'm very disappointed how insanely short we've fallen.  

Anyway, I don't think eliminating referral programs will change much and I think startups that do stay away from them will lose one of the most valuable tools they have to recruit senior developers.  I don't think the programs are the problem - I think their results are symptomatic of the real problem (i.e. we didn't promote diversity enough 10 years ago, and now the people with 10 years experience aren't particularly diverse).

Demelza Campbell Tech Workforce Program Manager/Recruiter at DOJ

July 16th, 2015

So am I to understand, that because you don't see them personally, that they dont exist?  Please know that is a real question.  FD is a vehicle where there are many people of color or women that are doing exactly that: becoming entrepreneuers. As I'm sure you know, it is not an easy process nor one that is always sucessful the first, second or third time out of the gate.

And apologies, but I was unaware that we had transitioned to the area of entrepreneurship.

If the only color you see is green and your bar for success is the aforementioned, then good.  but the question is if employee referral systems limit diversity and it is my opinion that it restricts it to a persons limited view and access points.

Haim Toeg Customer Success, Services and Support Executive - Available For New Opportunities

July 16th, 2015

It's the people making the hiring decisions who are responsible. Referral programs are only one source of candidates, but they are easy to implement and less risky and therefore very tempting.


July 17th, 2015

Respectfully sir...code monkeys are easy to find. What you need is a UX/UI expert who knows what non-tech people - ordinary folk need to get "Hooked" - Nir Eyal

Again, talented minorities are easy to find and if they are lacking in skills maybe you should reach out to coding bootcamps and programs like Free Code Camp and tell them what you want to see.

You'll find a boatload of minorities in these areas - there are non-profit and for profit initiatives working to solve the problem so, become a part of the solution, not the demolition crew looking to tear down what little chance there is.


July 17th, 2015

Wow @Robert R. Tillman 

Being a highly educated tech professional your response was insulting to say the least. Perhaps your experience has given you justification but, stereotypes without statistics is just plain ignorance.

Employers exploit minorities because they can, not because the person isn't qualified or skilled. Who would willingly enter a market knowing they will receive such treatment?

I did, just to prove naysayers like you wrong! But reality is: if an employer doesn't "like" you - no amount of skill will change their behavior. Until employers learn to see past their opinion of the person and simply look at skill and learn to respect their work, not like them personally - you won't see an increase in blacks and hispanics - just like you see so few women of any color, race or creed.


July 16th, 2015

Robert is spot on.  We hire people who can do the job. They are hard to find;  the good ones hard to keep.  Diversity is a natural by product of competence.  Anonymous' premise is off base.  He/she should be promoting his/her political agenda elsewhere.  It does not belong in this forum.

Thomas Sutrina Inventor at Retired Pursue Personal interrests and family

July 16th, 2015

Talk to HR and ask what information they can give out about past employees.  Very little and nothing that will help the another HR person pick good candidates.  Want diversity then provide information that is valuable to the company looking for employees.
I entered the work just after Vietnam ended and diversity quotas were mandated.  Women engineers got job offers without even signing up to talk to the company when they visited the campus.  As a male we joked that you would have to buy your own coffee at a job interview.   So there is a down side to diversity that is structured which will be the case if you are keeping statistics.  Because the statistics will reflect at best the actual candidate pool which in most cases will not have the proper diversity in the eyes of the judges.  Oh they should not be judging because they are not impartial, that is why they choose to be judging in the first place..  

Cheyenne Jones CEO/Founder

July 16th, 2015

"The tension is that the benefit of these programs..." I don't understand what you are saying, did you mean The *intention* is that the benefit of these programs..."? If so, it's a might be a worthy suggestion.