A position just opened up on your policy team for an analyst to lead your health care work. The hiring manager drafts a job description highlighting “health policy experience” as a “must-have” skill. Seems reasonable. After all, why not bring on someone who already knows the issue?
Frequently, limiting your search in this way is a mistake. Focusing too heavily on subject-matter knowledge of health care, education, or environmental policy—versus functional skills like writing, analysis, or relationship-building—ends up narrowing candidate pools and needlessly excluding great potential hires. And it often has another unintended consequence: limiting diversity. The quickest way hiring managers check for content knowledge is to look at experience in the field, but persistent job market discrimination prevents Black and Latinx issue experts from getting entry level roles and building their resume. Using the number of years in the field as a proxy for content knowledge reinforces systems that keep people of color out of influential policy roles.
I’m going to focus on racial diversity in this post, but gender obviously matters as well. When recruiters, journalists, and conference planners seek out content “experts” it’s heavily biased toward men. For a variety of reasons, advocacy hiring managers are better off casting a wider net in search of functional skills while deemphasizing issue expertise.
The Problems with Overemphasizing Content Knowledge
It’s understandable that managers working in issue advocacy organizations look to content knowledge first. The previous occupant of a given role probably knew a lot about the role’s specific policy issue or issues. Naturally, managers want someone with similar attributes. Moreover, it may save time teaching a recent hire about a policy area that’s new to them. If you’re hiring for a new role, you might naturally look to bring on board someone with previous experience. While well intentioned, these instincts frequently lead hiring managers astray.
For example, what makes people outstanding at policy roles is that they have strong analytical and writing skills with the ability to synthesize large amounts of information and present it in an accessible way. While it may take time to get up to speed on a new issue, those same skills can be applied to all sorts of problems. In other words, there are a lot of potential policy analysts out there to hire for any given role.
Say you need to hire for a niche policy area; for instance, someone to lead your work on renewable energy, specifically solar power and associated government incentives. They need to be the go-to person in your organization who understands how the tax code and budget process can encourage solar-power development. They also need to generate policy ideas and serve as a leader in the field, advising policymakers, partner organizations, and media. If you start your search by requiring experience with solar power and taxes, you’ll limit your options. You may know a couple of individuals you have worked with who could be good candidates, but there’s no guarantee they’re willing to take on a new role. You might be missing out on someone working in an adjacent field who could excel as your solar power expert. Relatedly, by focusing on content knowledge, you’re not actually focusing on the research, writing, and analytical skills that will most help someone do well. You might end up bringing on a person who knows a lot about solar power, but can’t develop the new ideas and leadership profile you need.
Finally, as I noted above, focusing too little on functional skills inadvertently reduces the diversity of your hiring pool and reinforces inequitable outcomes. I want to be clear about the nuanced systems at play because I fear this could be read as saying that people of color don’t have content knowledge, which is emphatically not the point. Rather, persistent labor market discrimination against Black and Latinx candidates reduces entry level opportunities, and chances to move up in any given field. Usually, the most frequent proxy for content knowledge is experience. I.e. If a candidate has eight years of experience in the health policy field in senior roles, they’re assumed to have more content knowledge than a candidate with four years experience. White candidates will have many more opportunities to gain that experience. If you end up narrowing your pool of candidates to only applicants who have previously been embraced by the field, you’ll end up perpetuating the same inequities that have kept candidates of color out.
OK, so hopefully I’ve convinced you to look beyond narrow content knowledge. What do you do instead? Glad you asked.
Focus on Functional Skills and Build a More Diverse Pool
There are several steps you can take during the job posting, recruiting, and interview processes where you can focus on functional skills and build a more diverse candidate pool. The two goals have some related practices, although I will only be able to scratch the surface on how to run an inclusive hiring process in this post. I recommend NonprofitAF and Management Center as good next-step resources for creating an equitable hiring process.
Posting the Job: Step one in hiring for skills over content knowledge is to say so in the job description. Ditch phrases like “knowledge of health care policy is a must” and focus instead on the skills you need for the role. If you prefer, it’s fine to note content expertise as a “nice to have.” Bonus points if you state explicitly that you do not require previous experience with the issue. To build a more diverse pool, you’ll need to go further than this. Avoid defaulting to requiring unnecessarily high levels of education or experience which could exclude qualified candidates who have been barred from other jobs in the field. Often we don’t realize that the language we use in a job description can send subtle signals about who is or is not being considered for the role. For example, using certain words can reduce the number of women who will apply for a role. To avoid this mistake, solicit review and feedback on the job description from a racially diverse cross-section of your staff or trusted external colleague. Be explicit that you’re looking to develop an inclusive job description and are seeking a diverse pool of candidates along racial, gender, and other dimensions. Then genuinely be open to changing norms or long-standing criteria based on the feedback you receive.
Recruiting: If you have struggled to build a diverse pool in the past, going about the recruiting process the same old way is likely to lead to similar results. Most people’s social networks are racially homogenous, particularly those of White people, so you should get outside the group of people you see most often. Don’t be afraid to reach out to folks you may not know well personally and prioritize individuals who have more diverse networks than you. Ask for their advice on good candidates and help in pushing your job description out widely. Chances are they’ll be happy to help you promote diversity in your organization’s hiring process. The same goes for getting outside your content area: distribute the job description to networks beyond your issue space.
Interviewing: At the interview phase, there are a few tried and true practices that lead to more equitable and successful results. Decades of research demonstrate that the way to increase the odds of finding a candidate who is the right fit while minimizing bias is to use a combination of structured interviews (i.e., every candidate gets the same questions) and job task simulations that test the skills someone will need to use. Particular types of interview questions matter too: you should focus on past experiences where someone demonstrated a particular skill or hypothetical scenarios where they might do so on the job. For example, if you need a policy analyst who can get up to speed quickly on a new issue, ask every candidate about a time in the past when they had to learn about a new content area and translate it quickly for others.
Job simulations are a great way to test functional skills like research, writing, and analysis. If you have candidates from various issue areas apply for a policy analyst role, you can give them a writing test that requires them to learn about an issue that is likely to be new to all of them, analyze what it means for the organization, and recommend policy ideas. In this scenario, I usually provide a few background readings and a reasonable time limit in which the candidates can reply. It’s important to provide enough advance notice and flexible scheduling to ensure an equitable process. While it’s not always feasible for simulations such as presentations or mock interviews, if possible you should do a “blind review” of the job simulation to avoid bias, by stripping the submissions of candidates’ names and other identifying information.
Times When Subject Matter Expertise May Matter
Of course, you should not entirely throw context expertise out the window. There are scenarios where it will matter and it’s OK to emphasize it. Even as you do so, you should keep all of the other practices above in place to ensure you have a diverse pool of candidates and avoid bias.
If time is really of the essence, and you need someone on board who knows an issue ASAP, then you may weigh content expertise more heavily. The last role I was hired for probably fit this bill; it was a temporary position handling the portfolio for someone who would later return from leave. The fact that I understood the key issues and organizational players meant I could jump on board fairly quickly and wouldn’t be just catching my stride when my colleague returned. There may be other such scenarios, such as a short-term campaign where the biggest asset is knowing the landscape, and that immediate short-term need outweighs the benefits of looking for a person who might have even stronger overall skills.
There are other times, particularly when it comes to certain leadership positions, when having someone with specific content knowledge or experience helps a lot for organizational credibility. For instance, an association representing community colleges will benefit from a CEO with experience in community colleges. Nevertheless, criterion is too frequently thrown aside when it comes to constituency or advocacy organizations that claim to represent the interests of marginalized communities. Finally, there may be times when you may have an opportunity to hire a guru in a particular area who adds unique value. I’ve seen this both for content knowledge and relationships. Sometimes there are people who have worked on an issue for decades, and know everything and everyone in the field. In local political contexts some organizers simply have relationships and credibility that you won’t be able to replace. If you have an opportunity to bring these people on board, by all means go for it.
While there are exceptions, the costs tend to outweigh the benefits of placing strong emphasis on content knowledge when hiring, particularly for policy and government relations roles. Doing so ends up narrowing the field of potential candidates, leading to weaker and less diverse applicant pools. You can avoid this by getting clear on which skills your organization needs from a role and remaining laser-focused on those throughout the search and interview process. Write more expansive and inclusive job descriptions, get outside the networks you know, and use structured interviews and job simulations to focus on skills you need while reducing biases. Ultimately, taking these steps should not only lead to more inclusive and diverse organizations, but more interesting ones as well as candidates with different knowledge and experience bring unexpected and valuable perspectives to the work.