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Putting the method to the test: 1 department’s approach to diverse hiring

How random sampling at the final stage of the hiring process impacted diversity among the ranks


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Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are ubiquitous terms in daily conversations. With regard to hiring, these words tend to serve as a social yardstick measuring the level of bias within an organization’s culture. And the fire service is not immune from this social measure.

As the fire service makes valiant attempts to tackle the diversity challenge, the nationwide data indicates we are still coming up short. Of the nation’s nearly 370,000 career firefighters, less than 18% are minorities and less than 5% are women. When compared to the nation’s almost 40% multiple race demographics and nearly 51% female population, it is not difficult to see that the fire service is lacking in representation from minority groups.

As with many private sector companies, public safety agencies are ramping up their diversity hiring initiatives. Some fire departments are even turning to DEI consultants to help implement programs focused on diversity in the workforce. Though an important move, such programs may not ultimately solve a department’s issue. Departments may need to change their entire approach to hiring.

I previously wrote about a new approach to fire service hiring. Here we’ll examine how the approach worked in this real-world hiring scenario.

Addressing the challenge Diversity programs can do a wonderful job informing a diverse group of people about your organization. But if they do not address equity within the hiring process, then it will be difficult to bring about the desired change. Equity, in this case, may be best handled by thoroughly reviewing your organization’s hiring practices, and identifying and revising those parts that are hindering progress.

Recently, I was fortunate to work with a fire department to address this issue, specifically its near 17% minority representation despite having close to 50% of their firefighter applicants and 45% of the community it serves be minorities. The mission was to evaluate the department’s current hiring practice and recommend methods that would help them hire a more diverse group of qualified individuals. This endeavor inspired much debate on the topic of what it means for an organization to be diverse, and sparked innovative thoughts about how best to implement a sound solution.

Evaluating the hiring processAs with many public safety agencies, this fire department has a thorough hiring process that involves multiple screening criteria to evaluate an applicant’s qualifications. The process includes an application, an academic aptitude entrance exam, a skills-based test (physical abilities test), a background review by Internal Affairs, a psychological evaluation, a medical examination, a polygraph test, and an interview with senior command staff members. It is a lengthy process that can take several months to complete before an eligible candidate is hired and can call themselves a recruit.

Traditionally, qualifying applicants receiving a passing score on the entrance exam and a qualifying time on the Physical Abilities Test (PAT) would be ranked on a list in top-down order based on their entrance exam score. A qualifying PAT time did not impact a candidate’s ranked position because it was a pass/fail criterion.

Moving through the list, starting with the highest entrance exam score, an eligible candidate would be selected to move through the remainder of the hiring until they were either hired and entered the firefighter recruit training academy, disqualified in one of the review sections due to a below standard assessment, or removed themselves from the process.

Used for many years, this process proved ineffective for achieving the level of diversity desired by the senior command staff and community leaders. Upon joining the project team, our initial action was to review the entire hiring process for any hidden bias. We studied the demographic breakdown of applicants, analyzing data gathered from hiring processes taking place between 2013 through 2019.

During that time, hiring processes were performed one or two times per year based on department needs. The results showed that, on average, close to 50% of the applicants were minorities. Of those minority applicants, nearly 44% became eligible for hiring consideration. Nothing indicated that they set out to purposely eliminate specific groups of individuals, despite only having a 17% minority representation throughout the department.

With close to half of the eligible candidates being minorities, the next step was to determine at which point in the process minority candidates were dropping out and why.

Following the entrance exam and PAT, typically the highest scoring 25% to 30% of the eligible candidates were processed through the remaining steps of the hiring process to yield a firefighter recruit class between 20 to 25 individuals. Of those highest-scoring eligible candidates, our analysis showed close to one-third were minorities. However, a significant portion of those highest scoring minority applicants had scores hovering near the lower end of the top scores. The skewed distribution of candidate scores meant that when a minority candidate was removed anywhere from the remaining sections of the hiring process (no longer eligible), it would be several review cycles before another eligible minority candidate would come up for hiring consideration.

Even after changing the entrance exam to a college-level course placement exam (College Board ACCUPLACER) to better measure academic aptitude, the candidate data distribution was similar. It was concluded that the lower entrance exam scores, combined with the top-down method of ranking of applicant’s entrance exam scores, was the primary reason for the consistently low representation of minority firefighter recruits. This result helps supports my belief that a test will not remedy diversity; rather, a retooling of the candidate selection process was required.

Paradigm shiftBefore change can be successful, it must first be explained why it is necessary. The team presented evidence to the organization’s senior leadership illustrating that the department was not struggling with diversity, per se; they were struggling with equity. Data showed a diverse group of people were applying to become a firefighter, and a diverse group of candidates were qualifying on the entrance exam and PAT. Unfortunately, that diversity did not migrate through the entire hiring process. For this to occur, equity would need to be introduced to the candidate selection process, abandoning the traditional method of candidate selection used for more than 20 years.

A goal of the written exam and PAT is to determine if the applicant has the basic general education and skills-based knowledge to be successful as defined by the organization’s standards. So, if the candidate has received qualifying scores, then what is the relationship of candidate’s ranked score on a list and their career success in the fire service? Meaning, will a candidate who scores a 90% on the entrance examination be a better firefighter over the course of their career than a candidate with a score of 88%? If both candidates have successfully demonstrated the basic academic and skills-based requirements necessary to be considered a trainable candidate, then both are eligible for employment. However, when using top-down ranking of entrance examination scores, the individual with an 88% may never have the opportunity to be considered for employment. But how do you break away from traditional hiring methods without purposely introducing bias or the appearance of lowering departmental standards?

Random samplingAfter several months of discussion, we were at an impasse on how to overcome the challenge. In their effort to hire a more diverse group of people, the department’s senior command staff wanted to break away from the traditional candidate selection practice but was unsure how to successfully accomplish their goal. Several proposals presented to improve diversity through the introduction of more equitable candidate selection methods were determined to be impractical. However, there was one method that caught people’s attention as being a potentially viable solution. This solution was based on the statistical method of sampling.

Using the statistical method of random sampling, I was able to develop a model that, when applied to a pool of eligible candidates, resulted in a sample (smaller subgroup) that had a demographic composition very similar to that of the original pool. An additional benefit of the model was that the demographics of the candidates in the random sample was more evenly distributed throughout the list versus the results produced in the top-down list of candidate scores.

Following multiple tests conducted on a non-active candidate data pool of 534 candidates using the random selection model, the findings verified the model consistently produced results as designed. These results were critical to garnering the necessary support from senior leaders to introduce this model into the upcoming firefighter hiring process.

The new random selection model was applied to a population of 428 eligible candidates who were part of an active hiring process. The population (428 candidates) consisted of 52% minorities. From the population of eligible candidate, examining the top scoring of 100 candidates (traditional top-down score order ranking of the entrance exam) showed there were 26 minority candidates eligible for hiring consideration. However, when the random selection model was applied to the same population, it resulted in a subgroup of 100 candidates comprised of 49% minority candidates with a more evenly distributed data set compared to the traditional top-down score candidate selection method.

When the hiring process was complete, a total of 95 eligible candidates from the random selection list were reviewed for hiring consideration. In the end, the firefighter recruit class consisted of 22 individuals who entered the training academy. As the first class to be hired using the new random selection method, the demographic breakdown of the class was 12 Caucasian men, one Caucasian woman, five African American men, three Hispanic/Latino men, and one Asian man – a 45% minority representation.

Final thoughtsWhile it is important to examine the factors that may hinder diversity and equity within the fire service, it is equally important to acknowledge that there is no one perfect solution for solving it. Every organization faces its own unique challenges with attaining a qualified diverse workforce.

It is important to note that the random selection model was not designed with the purpose of providing a fast-track guarantee for anyone to get hired, nor was its objective to diminish a department’s hiring standards. Instead, it is meant to help provide opportunities to a broader group of candidates identified as being trainable who would not typically have that opportunity under traditional practices.

Change can be difficult, and any new method deviating from tradition is sure to be met with resistance and skepticism. But if the goal truly is to achieve a diverse fire service, I encourage you to initiate those courageous conversations and have a willingness to try a new approach. This is how positive change occurs.

Dr. Michael Cunningham is a 16-year veteran of the fire service, currently serving as a division chief, chief of staff to the fire chief with Cobb County (Ga.) Fire & Emergency Services. He has spent his career as a firefighter and fire officer, as a training division instructor, and as a member of the administrative senior staff educating firefighters in the areas of fire behavior and firefighting tactics, leadership, career development, and diversity and inclusion. Dr. Cunningham has a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology, a master’s degree in business administration, a bachelor’s degree in computer science, a bachelor’s degree in professional aeronautics, and an associate degree in avionic systems technology. Dr. Cunningham can be reached via email.