In Search of Diversity?

A hot topic today among those tasked with hiring new employees for their organizations is diversity.  The buzz about diversity in the air is so frantic it is almost visible–“We must have a diverse workforce.  We must make diversity our hiring priority.  Diversity, diversity, diversity!”

Talking about diversity is all well and good, but as my experiences being on the other end of the hiring process over the past year have shown me, those tasked with hiring a diverse workforce have absolutely no idea how to hire for diversity.

So here is a primer.

Hiring for diversity means that you hire people who are not like you and not like the other people you have on staff, with the end result that the people on your staff are all different from one another.  Hiring for diversity means hiring people your organization needs, not people you like or want to work with.

Diversity doesn’t just mean having a balance of men and women on staff, or representations from different cultural backgrounds, gender preferences or gender identities. It also means having diversity of thought and perspective, having people who have had different personal and professional experiences and who thus see the world differently from those around them.

The organizational outcome of diversity is that you have more perspectives on every issue your organization faces.  With more perspectives, you generate more ideas.  With more ideas, you are more likely to find an idea that works.

Diversity sounds simple enough, except that it goes against an often invisible underlying bias that those tasked with hiring for diversity have when making decisions. They hire people who are like them.  The lens through which they make their hiring decisions is the lens of “Are you like me?  Do you think the same way I do?  Do you believe the same as I do?  Will it be easy to get along with you?”

With tiring regularity one of the major news outlets will share the lament of the head of some company or organization that they want to hire for diversity, but they can’t find qualified candidates.  My favourite article recently was this one from the BBC:  Ten Worst Excuses for Not Appointing Women Executives.  There is an element of humour to this article, to be sure, but there is also something pathetic about it.  It is not that there are no women capable of being executives out there.  We do exist.  But the distortions of the lenses of those hiring don’t let them see us.

As I made the rounds of the interview circuit for positions in higher education recently, the biases of the interviewers were front and centre in the process.  They were revealed with the structure of the hiring committees, with the questions I was asked and with the follow-up to my answers.

Do you want to solve your organization’s diversity issue?  Become aware of your biases or the lens through which you see the world.  Then take off the lens and really see the candidates who are actually in front of you.  Here are some practical tips, based on my experiences, to help.

If you have a hiring committee that isn’t diverse, this lack of diversity is going to perpetuate itself in the hires you make.  The entire interview panel is going to view your candidates through the same lens and therefore evaluate them the same way.  The least diverse panel I was interviewed by had seven men and one woman. As soon as I walked in the room, I knew the number one issue in the department.

If you don’t have a diverse hiring committee, bring in staff from other departments or outside human resources consultants to make it diverse.  Get different lenses on your hiring committee and, just as importantly, empower everyone on the committee to speak up with their different perceptions seen through those different lenses.

Be conscious of your first impressions, and then analyze them for their validity.  For example, don’t equate cheerfulness with not taking the interview seriously.  And don’t equate politeness and civility with a lack of confidence or weakness.  Women are often in a no-win position when it comes to first impressions.  If we position ourselves as serious, the first impression is often the B-word.  If we smile and are friendly, the first impression is that we are flaky or trying to flirt.

More on first impressions.  Don’t equate a candidate’s appearance with her or his ability to do the job.  I am not talking about whether the candidate is well-groomed and professionally dressed.  I am talking about physical features like height, weight, skin colour, or hair colour.  For example, I am not very tall, but that doesn’t mean I can’t command a room of hundreds of people or make myself heard in discussions and meetings.  So, don’t ask me questions like, “Are you sure you can handle a class of three hundred smart and ambitious students?”  Read my resume, and you will find the answer. 

Be conscious of the biases behind your interview questions.  Would you ask ALL of your candidates these questions?  For example, would you ask a male candidate, “Are you sure you can manage all of the responsibilities of this position?”  When I was asked this question, multiple times I might add, I fully expected to hear “little lady” or “sweetheart” at the end of it.

And be conscious of the biases in your interpretation of the candidate’s answers.  Something you see through your lens as a weakness, may actually be a strength.  And something you see as a strength, may actually be a weakness.

There is no magic wand to wave to build a diverse workforce.  It takes conscious effort to recognize the lens through which you make hiring decisions and to take that lens off during the hiring process.  But remember all of those great ideas that come from the different perspectives provided by a diverse workforce?  It is worth pushing through your biases to get those ideas.