Bonnie Eisenman bio photo

Bonnie Eisenman

Software engineer, author, knitter, Esperantist. Member of NYC Resistor and author of Learning React Native.

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My organization typically interviews in pairs: two interviewers, one candidate. This is beneficial for several reasons: it helps interviewers calibrate against each other, it frees up one person to take notes while the other asks a question, it helps the candidate meet more potential coworkers during the process. Sometimes it also creates an opportunity for odd observations.

I’ve had several interviews play out where I ask the technical question….and the candidate directs all of their answers exclusively to my male colleague.

Oh, dear.

The first – and most notable – time this happened, my co-interviewer started by verbally nudging the candidate to direct his answers to me. When that didn’t work, my coworker literally picked up his chair, placed it behind mine, and sat back down. The candidate continued to solely address answers to my coworker, craning his neck to avoid looking at me, even as I continued to ask him questions directly.

Even after that bizarre experience, I was surprised and relieved when my co-interviewer backed me up in the post-interview huddle. The whole time, I’d been questioning myself. This seemed absolutely absurd. Maybe I was making a big deal about something as mundane as eye contact. Maybe I was imagining it! Or, rather, I wished I was imagining it; that would be a nicer world to live in.

I’ve had several interviews since then where the candidate refuses to address me directly – avoiding eye contact, turning their back to me, sometimes failing to acknowledge that I’ve said anything at all. Invariably, they focus their attention on my (male, white) co-interviewer. It’s infuriating, every time. I’ve also heard enough similar stories, especially from women and Black engineers, that I suspect this is far more common than some people realize.

This happens notably less often now that I can introduce myself as a staff software engineer. I don’t think our candidate pool has become less sexist. I think that my title means that assholes are more likely to be nice to me. I’m missing out on an important signal now that I’ve become more senior.

If your more-junior or less-privileged coworker leads the interview, you might see some interesting behavior from candidates. Have them ask more (or most, or all) of the technical questions. See how the candidate reacts.

Don’t tolerate discrimination in your interviews. Sexist or racist behavior should be included in your written interview feedback. Condescending or arrogant behavior should be documented. It’s also grounds to end an interview early! I know this feels awkward. I know it’s tempting to come up with reasons to give the candidate the benefit of the doubt. But sexism, racism, and other kinds of discrimination must be a deal-breaker. Don’t force yourself or your coworkers to endure an hour of flagrant rudeness. And, perhaps most importantly – believe your junior colleagues if and when they report questionable interviewee behavior. They’re the ones most likely to see it, and it’s an important signal.