Canonical had a couple of potentially biased questions on their job application that I called out in a previous blog post. I even called it out in my application, stating my university grade point average was not relevant.
Today they sent me their “written interview” and they doubled down on the invasive questions about candidates’ educational experiences that could generate conscious or unconscious bias.
- In high school, what was your academic performance in different subjects (languages, maths and sciences, humanities, social sciences, arts)? Where were your strengths and weaknesses; what did you enjoy most, and how did you excel?
- What sort of high school student were you? Beyond your studies, what were your interests and hobbies? How do you think you are remembered by your peers?
- Can you describe any high school achievements that would be considered exceptional by peers or teachers – or by yourself?
- If you completed a bachelors degree or equivalent: which degree and university did you choose, and why?
- How did you perform in your degree, and what was your final degree result? (Note that different education traditions around the world use different scoring systems. Please give us additional context so that we understand what your degree result indicates, even if we’re not familiar with that particular system.)
- What were your extracurricular interests and how did you spend your free time?
- What did you have to overcome to attain your successes in education? What are you proudest of?
- Can you describe something you did while in education that made a difference to other people?
- Can you describe any achievements at university that would be considered exceptional by peers or teachers – or by yourself?
- If you could have that time again, what would you do differently?
This was my reply.
This set of questions makes me deeply uncomfortable.
For example, you can have candidates for these roles for whom high school was 20-50 years ago. The question about hobbies and interests when they were not adults is not only invasive, but could potentially be used to guess their age.
Another example is the one ending in “which university did you choose and why?” For students of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) or women’s universities, truthful answers could create racial or gender bias.
Refusing to answer either question in full could lead to biased assumptions as to why they were not answered.
Thank you, but I am withdrawing my application and am very disappointed in Canonical.
I think it is not only unfair, but potentially illegal, to ask questions designed to elicit responses that could be used to identify a candidate’s age, gender, prior gender, orientation, or race, but are not inherently related to the candidate’s professional skills, experiences, and philosophies.
Furthermore, this was identified as being part of a stage where there was not only the written interview, but a “psychometric assessment.” If the interview questions were this irrelevant and invasive, I can only guess that would be even worse.
I had no issue with the professionally oriented questions in the written interview. I think letting candidates write their answers instead of having to give them on the spot is also possibly good for people who aren’t confident in interviews. That said, I was SOOO tempted to not withdraw, but instead let ChatGPT write all of my answers.
Could they have done this better?
Improvement #1: Remove the high school questions entirely. Let’s not get into how they were as a minor.
Improvement #2: Rephrase questions that are too open ended. For example:
What were your extracurricular interests and how did you spend your free time?
… becomes …
Please tell us about any achievements or activities during your studies that demonstrated skills and talents related to the role for which you’re applying.
I’m applying for a writing role, so working on the university literary magazine and writing opinion pieces for the campus newspaper are related. Hosting a late night radio show, fraternity social chair, campus improv troupe, summer job as a “Promotional Model” (actual title)… not so much.
I’m a seasoned writer and veteran of Amazon and Microsoft who went through multiple levels of Amazon PR training, which is required to convince Amazon you won’t put your foot in your mouth while representing them at external events. I can limit my responses appropriately. Still it made me uncomfortable to navigate that minefield.
Younger applicants might let something sensitive slip. Slogging through this huge document, they could reflexively answer the question as it’s phrased, not thinking that they might identify their religion, politics, gender, orientation, age, disability, etc.
These are not factoids that go into a database and only get handled in the aggregate like the “voluntary self identification” portion of an online application. This is being read by an interviewer. At minimum rephrase them to elicit the exact information you want rather than set traps for applicants, intentional or not.
Honestly, I think being able to cogently express why and how their questions need to be changed makes me an even better applicant than those who just answer them blindly. On the other hand, I am not interested in working for a company that considers it acceptable to ask them.
What do you think of the process? Tell me in the comments.
2 thoughts on “Job Hunt Diary 2023: Canonical doubles down on questions that could cause bias”
I do not know whether to laugh or be appalled. Maybe, both. This is so over-the-top that it’s hard to imagine.
You have hired employees. Did you want to elicit specific information or have a conversation that would inform you if the applicant was bright, could think cogently and reason logically, and could be sociable and engaging? Does the person match the writer of the work samples?
I can only imagine these questions are relevant at all if the applicant is a recent graduate. Perhaps they’re interested in entry level people.