In Your Shoes CEO Series: Jerome Ternynck on Retooling Diversity Hiring Through Technology at SmartRecruiters

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Jerome Ternynck, Founder and CEO of SmartRecruiters, started his career as a recruiter in the Czech Republic right after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc. He remembers serving big clients like L’Oreal, who would ask for candidates with a highly specific set of criteria. There was only one problem. “At the time, nobody in the country had experience in anything related to the capitalistic economy,” he says.

So, these companies would ask Ternynck to find them a marketing director with 10 years of experience, and he would reply, “I’m sorry, but no one has 10 years of marketing experience in this country.” Trying their luck again, they would ask him to locate someone with a degree in marketing who could learn quickly. Ternynck would reply, “I’m sorry, but no one has a degree in marketing, because they don’t teach marketing at university here.” 

Well, how about someone with the right attitude who can learn marketing? “Oh, that we can find,” Ternynck would reply. And so, he did. “I was really born in a no-bias space, focusing on the must-achieves rather than must-haves,” he says. 

In many ways, this methodology has been baked into SmartRecruiters’ DNA from the start. Ternynck has thought a lot about hiring outside of metrics and preconceived notions of success. “[Many hiring managers say], ‘You must have been a Harvard graduate or Standard graduate, or have worked at Facebook,’” he says. “But that’s not very diverse. So how do you change that? You say, ‘I need someone who can achieve the following things.’ Then, you open up the realm of possibilities to different backgrounds.”

SmartRecruiters’ technology has an emphasis on reducing or eliminating bias in the hiring process because it is difficult to open up your mind to the many different types of candidates who might see success in a given role. As Ternynck puts it: “Bias is natural. Bias is human.” However, last summer during the social justice movements across America, Ternynck realized he could do much more to combat the discrimination and unconscious bias. “I realized I had been aware [of bias and racism], at times I was probably a good advocate, and probably fell on the right side of history,” he says, “but I was also completely enjoying my white privilege and not leveraging my white privilege to really be an ally.” 

Serving thousands of enterprises like LinkedIn and VISA, helping close about one million hires a year through its software, SmartRecruiters is well-positioned to force change. “I thought, ‘Okay, so what happens if we try to drive change? If we become a force of antidiscrimination?’” Ternynck says. “How far are we willing to go to actually drive change in the market?”

Creating a Plan

Last summer, Ternynck personally set up around 50 one-on-one conversations with global heads of talent acquisition across and diversity leaders around the world. “I just asked them a simple question: ‘How do you do diversity hiring? What are the standards? What are the best practices? Give me some ideas.’ It really struck me that most people did not have a recipe for driving better diversity hiring outcomes.      Many had ideas or had anecdotal evidence about what worked, what didn’t and why, but no methodology at scale.” 

SmartRecruiters also hired its first Chief Diversity Officer in 2020: Rocki Howard who was instrumental in creating their methodology. “Rocki is one of the most inclusive leaders I’ve met in my career,” says Ternynck. “She has taken our company on a journey towards inclusive leadership… I think the level of candor, the level of vulnerability, the level of sharing, and the level of inclusion inside our extended leadership team — which is the group of around 60 managers — has just been absolutely amazing.” 

After this exploration talking to leaders and then bringing them together to share their best practices, SmartRecruiters published an initial plan with “10 Principles of Diversity Hiring” on LinkedIn. After thousands of comments, establishing user groups and think tanks around the concepts, the team improved the principles. They settled on a methodology for diversity hiring, including a whole training curriculum. 

SmartRecruiters created a diversity hiring assessment toolkit, where companies can audit their diversity hiring practices across the 12 pillars of diversity hiring. For example, one pillar is ensuring you have no bias in screening candidates. Within this single pillar, a company can fall within four levels of maturity ranging from no screening practices to using technology to ensure there is no bias. “We define levels of maturity and consistency so people can see where they fit,” Ternynck says. “Then, you get a score that tells them how mature they are across these 12 pillars, and a blueprint for what they could improve on — an actionable plan to improve diversity hiring practices.” 

In its plan, SmartRecruiters committed to being a “poster child” for diversity hiring and then driving more innovation along with three key facets of the process. The first is sourcing candidates. “That’s one area where people really say they don’t know how to do that, so we’re working on a program to address it,” Ternynck says. A second area for improvement is measuring success in diversity hiring. “We are working with our customers to really think about how we would measure success in diversity hiring,” he says. “What does it mean? Okay, 50% of our engineering hires this year are women; is that success? Or is that not success? Did you set a target? Are you allowed to? Should you? How do you actually measure diversity?” Ternynck sees a lot of room to innovate and guide in this area.

And then, finally, there is the foundation of SmartRecruiters: The technology powering a better hiring process. 

“Analyzing a Resume Is a Job for a Machine”

From the moment a recruiter opens a LinkedIn profile or resume document, bias enters the equation. And for eight years, Ternynck has been trying to change that. “We’ve been on a journey to keep pushing the envelope on how to help customers drive better, fair hiring decisions,” he says. 

Technology matters a lot here. “Your bias is actually a natural feature, so a way to combat bias is actually through teamwork,” Ternynck says. “I think this is really the main lesson: One person should not make a hiring decision. It has to be done by several people, through a system, otherwise, you have bias regardless of how you think about it.” 

On top of this, recruiters need to know how to contextualize a resume and predict which can be successful. “Can you actually leverage technology to help you understand who these people are, what skill set they have and make a recommendation?” Ternynck says. 

SmartRecruiters has continued to refine its AI-powered SmartAssistant, which can help hiring managers and recruiters understand which resumes pursuing. “Analyzing a resume is just to decide if I should spend time talking to this person,” Ternynck says. “Analyzing a resume is a job for a machine.” He says that you could have no idea, for instance, that a major in usability engineering from a university in Colombia is an amazing major, and people who have graduated from his program have gone on to build fantastic careers as usability engineers. “You don’t know the university, and you don’t have a clue,” Ternynck says, “But the machine knows, because the machine has already read thousands of resumes of people who look like this, who have had these jobs — who know that with this major, you get this set of skills, and people with these sets of skills are good at these jobs.” 

SmartRecruiters’ AI tech runs the resume, reads it for you, summarizes, and highlights exactly what you need to know to decide without bias ever entering the equation. It’s an elevated way to hire diverse talent, which will make organizations deeper and more multifaceted. It’s not just the right thing to do, Ternynck insists. He correlates it directly with success. “The way I define diversity is the diversity of perspective,” he says, “and clearly teams that have diversity and inclusion are teams where people speak up, people bring perspectives, people bring ideas, and, generally, the teams perform better.” 

Although he’s still working on a broader definition of success in diversity hiring for companies globally, Ternynck has a sense of what he’s looking for within DE&I efforts at SmartRecruiters: He wants diversity of perspective that will allow his teams to innovate, create and succeed, along with inclusion and belonging where everyone feels they are valued and contributes.     

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