Working Strategies: DEI interview questions need not be dangerous

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Amy Lindgren

As a job search strategist, I’ve learned that some interview questions are tricky, while others are downright dangerous.

Tricky: Describe one of your weaknesses and how you manage it.

Dangerous: What qualities did you most dislike about your last boss?

The difference between tricky and dangerous? The speed with which you, as the candidate, can propel yourself into a hole while answering — and the rapid pace at which your prospects diminish for climbing back out.

Questions about DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) definitely fall into the dangerous category, if for no other reason than the fact that DEI seems to mean something different to everyone. To help you grapple with the potential for misunderstanding, start with these four steps when preparing for DEI questions:

1. Learn the basics. Even if you’ve had workplace training on DEI, there’s benefit to refreshing yourself on what each part of the acronym generally means.

2. Learn the extras. Have you heard of a diversity dashboard or scorecard? How about the pillars of inclusion? You don’t need a master’s course on the subject, but having more background can provide more agility in answering interviewers’ questions.

3. Think broadly. It’s easy to assume that diversity refers to race or culture, while exempting age, gender, disability, neurodiversity, economic status or other factors from your thinking. By expanding your perspective, you’ll be able to identify more examples from your work experience.

4. Consider context. Forgive the clumsiness of this example, but suppose you’re white and have worked primarily with white colleagues, serving mostly white clients. Now suppose that those clients are families of children with autism, or perhaps they are elderly residents of a care center, or possibly adults with cognitive disabilities living in group homes. Does this mean you have experience with diversity?

Following these four steps will give you a foundation for your thinking, but you still need to practice some answers. This is where things can go south fast. For example, using the example above, it wouldn’t be very smooth to say, “I know I’m white, and my clients have mostly been white, but their cognitive disabilities give me a lot of exposure to diversity.”

Huh? That sounds like someone trying to hop on a bandwagon rather than giving an honest reflection on the topic. Regardless of the question (“Describe your experiences with diversity” or “How do you strive to improve DEI in your work?” are common), you want your answer to demonstrate both an understanding of and a commitment to the topic.

Let’s try this instead: “I’ve given a lot of thought to DEI, and particularly to the ‘inclusion’ part of the term. As adults with cognitive disabilities, our clients are frequently excluded from normal activities, even in their own families. Working on their behalf has helped me sharpen my understanding and processes for bringing more voices to the table. It’s not always easy, but I try to incorporate their perspectives whenever possible.”

Parsing out the answer above, here are the main strategies:

Don’t define DEI too narrowly. Your definition of DEI might differ from the interviewer’s but that’s one of the principles of inclusion: Your perspective counts too.

Be specific. Speaking in generalities is a common mistake, born of the desire to avoid a misstep. Remember that answers that sound like a motivational poster (“I believe that diversity is the key to a great workplace”) have the potential to backfire when the interviewer follows up with, “Tell us why.”

Don’t apologize. Whether explicitly, or by implication, indicating that you don’t have experience with the topic because you’re white, or haven’t had the training, or haven’t been tasked with the issue at work will all sound like apologies. Dig deeper and find a better focus for your answer.

Be brief. The answer above is almost designed to bring a follow-up question, which is good. You could expect, “Can you provide an example?” or perhaps, “How would that experience transfer to our work, since we’re in a different industry?” By not covering all the possible points in one answer, you provide a better opportunity for give-and-take — which is more likely to reveal the interviewers’ true concerns and viewpoints on the subject.

What if you follow these steps and still can’t find a way to participate in this topic? It’s time to consider a training or volunteer experience to provide you the background you’re missing. DEI isn’t going away (nor should it); you need to be ready for the conversation, as well as the workplace it reflects.

Amy Lindgren owns a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at [email protected]

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