Photograph of two hands, one holding a magnifying glass, the other a soldering iron (by Paul Downey)

Re-post: Hiring based on hobbies: effective or exclusive?

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on November 12, 2012.

“When I’m interviewing a candidate, I ask them what they do in their free time.” It’s not unusual for me to hear this from people who are in a position to influence hiring for software jobs. Often, though not always, these people are male. The implication is that the interviewer prefers candidates who have sufficiently interesting hobbies (according to the interviewer’s sense of what’s interesting), and won’t give preference to (or will weight negatively) those candidates who either don’t have hobbies, or who the interviewer judges to do boring hobbies.

As far as I can tell, hiring based on hobbies has two major possible implications for software jobs. One is that it’s easier for people who hack on open-source code in their free time to get a software job. I guess the idea there is that if you want to choose a good worker, you pick someone whose hobby is doing more work. Mary Gardiner previously addressed the issue of leisure-time open-source hacking as a job qualification, in “Is requiring Open Source experience sexist?” on this very blog.

The other possible implication is that “interesting” hobbies don’t necessary have to involve programming, but you do have to have a hobby and it does have to be interesting to your interviewer, which probably means it has to be something that wouldn’t be a surprising interest for a hetero white cis male software engineer. From hanging around many such people and observing what they find “cool”, I can surmise that ideally this would involve fooling around with robots or circuits or wires. It should involve building things and tinkering for the sake of tinkering. Cooking, crafting, and other hobbies that have a practical application — that involve skill and art, but aren’t practiced just to impress other hackers — probably aren’t going to count for a whole lot of status points.

You’ll be disadvantaged on both counts, of course, if your spare time gets spent taking care of your family or doing the household work that women in relationships with men are often disproportionally saddled with (see Arlie Hochschild Russell’s book The Second Shift for more on that.) Or if you can’t afford to do hobbies that require more materials than a pencil and paper. You also may be disadvantaged if you have a disability: for example, if you don’t have the physical coordination to mess around with wires. Closer to my experience, you may be disadvantaged if you’re someone who has mental illness. As someone who’s been living with clinical depression for 20 years, a lot of the time it’s all I can do to put in my eight hours in a day and then get home, feed the cats, and throw together something to eat. Energy and motivation are not evenly distributed across the population.

Because status hierarchies in geek circles are frequently about who has the assets (in both time or money) to do the coolest projects in their spare time, I often feel excluded when other people talk about what they do in their free time, and guilty because I don’t have enough executive function to do much after work besides recharge so I can do more work the next day. I love my work, but like lots of kinds of work, it’s a source of stress for me. I imagine the same is true for most or all people who do software: I doubt there’s anyone who never experiences stress as part of their job. What’s not universal is how people deal with stress, and how much time off a person needs to recharge from it. Whether or not someone gets pleasure from hacking in their free time is affected by their social placement: the amount of time doing non-work-like activities someone needs before they can return to demanding intellectual work is affected by their physical and mental health; how many worries they have about money, relationships, and other non-work-related stressors; how many microaggressions they face as part of an average working day; whether they were brought up with self-esteem and a sense that they have the ability to recover from failure, or had to learn those things on their own as an adult; and many other factors. Few of those factors have to do with an individual’s level of dedication to their work; many are implied by where someone finds themself placed within a variety of intersecting social structures.

Recently, someone online said to me that he hires based on hobbies because he wants to hire interesting people. I’ve seen other people imply that there’s something even morally suspect about somebody working an engineering job just for the money, and that someone who doesn’t do the same stuff in their free time is obviously just in it for the money. Of course, that’s classist. It’s easier to feel like you’re motivated by the sheer love of your work if you don’t really need the money.

But besides, if you decide someone isn’t worth hiring because they don’t have “interesting” hobbies, what you’re really saying is that people who didn’t come from an affluent background aren’t interesting. That people with child care or home responsibilities aren’t interesting. That disabled people aren’t interesting. That people who have depression or anxiety aren’t interesting. That people who might spend their free time on political activism that they don’t feel comfortable mentioning to a stranger with power over them aren’t interesting. That people who, for another reason, just don’t have access to hacker spaces and don’t fit into hobbyist subcultures aren’t interesting.

You might counter that a person’s hobbies are relevant to their level of commitment to or interest in their work, and thus it’s justifiable for an employer to ask about them. However, this sounds essentially similar to the idea that women are to be looked at with extra suspicion during hiring, involving the assumption that women are cis and have relationships with cis men, and that cis women who have relationships with cis men will take time off from work to have babies. Statistically, there might be some truth to this — by the way, I’m not sure what evidence there is behind the assertion that people who do software or engineering in their spare time make better software engineers than people who play music or sail boats or bake muffins. Even so, it’s illegal (at least in the US, and possibly elsewhere) to use gender and marital status as bases for discrimination. People with some types of disabilities or chronic illnesses might sporadically be less productive at work, but it’s still illegal to ask about health conditions. Obviously, I’m not suggesting we should legislate against asking about hobbies as part of the interview process. It’s impossible to ban every type of question that might be used in a discriminatory way. It’s up to individual hiring managers to be ethical and mindful about whether they’re asking a question to evaluate a candidate’s abilities directly, or to make sure the candidate is sufficiently similar on a personal level to the manager’s mental ideal of what a programmer is supposed to be. I happen to think evaluating people on their skills rather than whether they fit the profile for a particular social clique is a better way to identify good workers.

A less cerebral “hobby” that may also be compulsory, as Ryan Funduk wrote about, is drinking. As he points out, when work-related social events revolve around alcohol, this excludes people who can’t or don’t want to drink as well as many women, who might enjoy drinking but don’t feel comfortable being in groups of drunk men (especially not when pretending that alcohol erases responsibility for sexual assault is a staple of rape culture). I haven’t personally experienced this much, since I’ve spent more time in academia than industry, but it’s something to discuss in the comments.

Have you ever found that your hobbies were an asset when getting hired? Or have you felt the need not to mention a hobby because it seemed like more of a liability? Have you felt pressure to do extra unpaid work just to be a competitive candidate for software jobs? Or to take up recreational pursuits you didn’t really like just to increase your level of cultural fit in your workplace?

8 thoughts on “Re-post: Hiring based on hobbies: effective or exclusive?

  1. moh

    A couple of points stuck out in the previous comments to this post. One was the idea that the goal of the hobbies question is to get people talking about an area where they have competence and skills, and gives them a chance to show what they’re good at.

    What about the candidate who has three children and belongs to three PTAs, who coaches a children’s soccer team, and teaches Sunday School at their church?

    What about the candidate who cares for an elderly relative, and has through circumstance had to learn how to navigate the health-care and legal systems?

    Both of those candidates may not have the free time for developing much competence in a personal hobby like scrapbooking or puppet theater. But both will have a depth of knowledge, competence, and confidence and an ability to manage, meet deadlines, and handle stress… in areas that an interviewer is not legally allowed to discuss; several interviewers in the last post said they would shut down discussion if it went in that direction.

    Can a candidate say, “To answer that question I’d have to talk about soccer, which I love, and my kids’ team which I coach. Is that okay with you?”

    1. Tim Chevalier

      I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is that an employer isn’t banned from talking about children or family with a candidate if the candidate brings it up first. In fact, I don’t think it is illegal to even ask about these topics — it’s just that many employers understandably avoid asking, because if they ask, this could be seen as evidence of discrimination. (Also, everything I’m saying here is US-specific.)

      However, arguably there are still some problems here: suppose the candidate in your first example is a woman — if she voluntarily mentions this information, will she be stereotyped as a soccer mom, a stereotype that is not always compatible with being seen as a great engineer? Would a candidate of any gender be judged negatively for being involved in church, since lots of software people are passionate atheists? The point remains that the “hobbies” question makes life difficult for many people.

    2. Alan Bell

      If I am interviewing you then you can say whatever you like, but I can only ask you legal questions. This means it is totally fine for you to answer a hobby/outside interest question with whatever it is you are most comfortable talking about (which is the point – I want to hear you talk about something where you are the expert and I am the novice). If you pick a topic to talk about that is related to childcare, gender issues or any other sensitive topic in an interviewing context that is *fine* but I might not ask followup questions if I can’t think of a legal one – if you talk about a church activity I am not going to ask “which church?” for example, or anything that might indirectly require you to tell me which church in your response. If you are on a school PTA I am going to be dead impressed by that (and I recently hired someone who is a school governor).

  2. Jenny

    So I’m in the slightly odd position of having done open source in my spare time that I can’t really talk, and certainly not to male interviewers. I’m talking about the OTW and their Archive of Our Own project, which brings up the keywords ‘fandom’ and ‘fanfiction’. I’m still not really sure if there is a non-awkward way to bring this up.

    1. Alan Bell

      That just looks like an achievement to be really proud of! It is about preservation of popular culture, democratisation of the publishing process and encouraging people to participate in creative literary activities. I am not even sure how to put a negative spin on it :)

      1. Mary

        There’s several reasons people are concerned about a “negative” spin (scare quotes because I am attributing negative to other people, not to myself):

        1. it is a female-dominated activity, and hence there’s the same concerns as with any female-dominated hobby: some concern that one’s (presumed male) interviewer won’t automatically picture himself and his (presumed competent) mates stressing over their own Yuletide prompts, they’ll picture their (presumed less competent) female friends and family instead. It also has a teenage association (if not reality, many fans are adults) so there’s a concern about buying into ageist discrimination too.

        This is a general concern in this thread: some hobbies, no matter what their artistic and cultural value or what skills they cultivate, are a good way to make yourself look a lot less like the interviewer or like their typical hire, and people have good reason to believe that this makes them less likely to be hired. Interviews are thought to be a demonstration of skill and are in fact in a great many cases a demonstration of being a good cultural match with the interviewer and hiring company.

        2. creators and owners of original work sometimes sharply disapprove of fanworks: it’s not uncommon to encounter people who believe it’s unethical and/or illegal (and in some copyright regimes, some fanworks are legally grey). So there’s the concern that your interviewer will be one of them.

        3. fanworks include porn/erotica and are well-known to do so, so there’s also the concern that either one does produce erotic fanworks or one will be taken to do so. I hope I don’t need to explain in detail why someone — especially someone of a group that gets sexually objectified a lot, like women — wouldn’t want to raise, or wouldn’t want to be seen as raising, a sexual, sexualised or erotic hobby in a job interview.

        Alan, in general, “I wouldn’t know how to begin discriminating on that basis!” is not greatly reassuring: the evidence of there being one person who wouldn’t discriminate does not alleviate concerns of discrimination. In general, someone who has a discriminated-against characteristic can better speak to its likelihood of being discriminated against: they get to be judged on it in many interactions, you get to judge them on it much more rarely.

        1. Alan Bell

          OK, seems I don’t know much about fan fiction. I was completely unaware of points 1 and 3 and I am quite liberal about point 2. Having now been educated about 1 and 3 I still think it is great, but I understand the point a bit better. Thanks!

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