Redefining Diversity

As practiced today, diversity is chiefly about improving the ratios of gender and race among applicants and hires. In a recent article, I discussed that while this may appear to be a worthwhile goal, the evidence from multiple studies demonstrates that this limited view of diversity is actually counterproductive. Instead of delivering any significant business benefits, employers experience mostly negative effects, such as higher turnover.

Achieving a net positive from diversity requires a strong emphasis on assimilation. An organization must actively work at ensuring that all candidates come to accept and share its values, mission, and purpose. If diversity recruiting is to be effective, it needs to be done differently.

The Hood Ornament

Diversity programs exist to advance the acceptance of minorities in organizations while providing those organizations with higher productivity, innovation, and a host of other benefits. But we already have affirmative action to cover the former, and there’s no evidence that any of the latter actually occurs. This does not mean that diversity is a bad idea, but that there’s no proof that it’s a good one.

The business case for diversity is very weak. No evidence exists to show that organizations that embrace diversity, as currently defined, perform better than those that don’t. The goal of diversity (i.e., hiring more women and “people of color”) is worthwhile only if one assumes that not enough are being hired in the first place and that it’s needed to counteract the effects of discrimination. But preventing discrimination is why we have laws that explicitly address it.

Some make the case that it’s important that an organization’s workforce reflects its customer base. But this is rarely relevant. Customers don’t make buying decisions based on the composition of the workforce of those providing them with goods and services. Can you imagine patients traveling to the Mayo Clinic because of its diversity instead of its expertise? For that matter, would anyone refuse to be treated at a hospital where the workforce was not representative of them? Customers usually have no way of knowing this. Product labels do not mention the composition of the workforce, and even when people do know, they don’t care. A lot of products sold in the United States are produced by workforces that are 100% Chinese, but that doesn’t hurt sales.

If this argument had any substance, we wouldn’t be seeing the continual increase in outsourcing of services to India. The composition of the sales force may be relevant to the customer base of large retail stores; but, the staff in such stores generally does reflect the customer base because most employees live within a few miles of the workplace, as do the shoppers.

Diversity is like an expensive hood ornament, out there for everyone to admire but serving no practical purpose. This is why so many organizations are not sold on diversity and do little more than pay lip service to its goals. Much of the reason for this is because the diversity movement has promoted it as a cause that should be taken on faith as a good thing, not to be questioned. It’s hard to take this seriously when the goals appear to be nothing more than diversity for its own sake. A recent article on a prominent diversity website mentions that companies should keep a watchful eye on managers that don’t care about getting diversity awards. Why that will help an organization do better at achieving its objectives is anyone’s guess.

This example is a perfect illustration of the problems that the diversity movement has created. Not embracing diversity is the equivalent of opposing it, with appropriate consequences for those who don’t. It would make more sense to find out if those who do collect such awards perform better than those who don’t. So, instead of a solid business case for advancing a social cause, we have fearmongering. No wonder that most companies do just enough to stay off the radar of such self-appointed watchdogs.

Improving Diversity Recruitment

If we’re serious about diversity, then we need to focus on what will make diversity programs and recruiting more effective. The research evidence shows that for diversity to work, assimilation is critical. That is, the workforce must be aligned with the values of the organization. Writing in “Good to Great,” Jim Collins makes the case that companies that do not hire people that share their values are not likely to succeed. Collins also writes that companies need a set of core values in order to achieve the kind of long-term, sustainable success that may lead to greatness. The leap from good to great occurs when employees are equally dedicated to the same set of values.

Recruiting processes should include a values assessment using a standard inventory such as the Lennick Aberman or others. The extent to which alignment with values should influence a hiring decision should depend on the impact the job has on the organization and the likely tenure of the incumbent. A major gap between a candidate’s and the employer’s values should be a reason to consider if the candidate could realistically achieve the results expected of him in a manner acceptable to the organization. At a minimum, there should be a discussion of values as part of the hiring process.

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Metrics should also measure the extent to which candidates and hires share the organization’s values. Starting with the recruiting process, employees should be apprised of the organization’s values. This is rarely done in a meaningful way, and it is certainly not a component of diversity programs. Assimilation does not mean that individual employees need to lose their identities, but it does mean that they need to accept and support their employer’s purpose and values. Obviously, this is easier if an employee’s values do not conflict with those of the employer.

Diversity recruiting should be part of an overall program designed to ensure that an employer’s core values are supported by the workforce. If diversity recruiting just continues to be about improving the proportion of minorities in the applicant pool instead of selecting those aligned with values, then it’s not likely that employers will move beyond paying lip service to the concept.

Conclusion

Whatever happened to not being judged by the color of your skin but by the content of your character? Diversity programs turn that one on its head.

Defining diversity in terms of race and gender trivializes the concept. Diversity certainly has value in an organization in which different points of view and experiences can generate new ideas, challenge old ones, and provide a richer experience for all, but there is no logical reason to limit that to race and gender. If we continue with this, then let’s add a category to diversity recruiting for people weighing over 300 pounds (people of weight). That makes about as much sense.

As I mentioned above, since we already have EEO and AA, what value does diversity provide as currently defined? If the laws don’t work, then diversity isn’t going to do much to help. If they do work, then what is the point of race- and gender-based diversity?

I received a lot of e-mail after my last article, some of it very supportive and some highly critical, including some rather colorful remarks of a personal nature. Apparently, when it comes to diversity, a diversity of viewpoints is not welcome.

Interestingly, none of those that chose to dispute what I wrote provided a shred of evidence in support of their arguments other than to make rhetorical and morally posturing statements while claiming that any studies cited must be biased. I would wager that none of the people who opposed them have read the studies.

I am not opposed to diversity, but I don’t see it working as it exists today, which is a huge disservice to all concerned. If this particular emperor has no clothes, then he deserves to be called out. As a recruiting professional, I’d like to see diversity recruiting deliver results that matter. If it’s a program that many would like to support, then let’s do what it takes to make it genuinely effective.

Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.

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9 Comments on “Redefining Diversity

  1. I could not agree with you more.

    From a recruiter stand point, this has long been a difficult topic to bring up to your management. Not only are you looked down on for questioning the benefit of such programs, if you are not a ?diverse? employee yourself, you somehow do not have the right to question the practice.

    I have long been a proponent of hiring the best qualified candidate available for a position, regardless of diversity. Diversity should not trump qualifications. I would also venture to guess that the majority of hiring managers are much less concerned about a candidate?s ethnicity, race or sex than they are with the candidate?s ability to perform the required job and to fit into the team and not cause any waves.

    Do I not hire Larry Bird because he is not a diversity candidate? Do I only hire Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods because they are diversity candidates?

    To be truly effective in your recruiting, you have to get past the superficial characteristics of a candidate (be it race, sex, ethnicity, weight, appearance, height, hair color, etc.) and look at their qualifications, skills and their desire to help your company reach its goals. Not only should we be color blinded in the recruiting process, we should be blind to all but their qualifications, abilities.

  2. Raghav Singh stated that no practical business purpose is served with diversity hiring. What about this one: ensuring that all segments of society are gainfully employed and have equal access to all positions within a company ensures all segments of society have an equal chance to spend. Thus, the wheels are in motion for building a society that is as egalitarian and prosperous as possible, contributing for technology development and socio-political stability.

  3. I want to thank you for your article, ?Redefining Diversity.? I think you have summarized well the gripes of many recruiters facing the diversity challenge as well as hiring managers and employees. As a recruiter who is highly diversity-conscientious I often am confronted with the same dissatisfaction you’ve expressed.

    At the end of your article you asked, ?…since we already have EEO and AA, what value does diversity provide as currently defined? If the laws don’t work, then diversity isn’t going to do much to help. If they do work, then what is the point of race- and gender-based diversity?? I don’t believe you have an inclusive definition of what diversity initiatives are. Organizations have AA or diversity programs (or both) for different reasons. AA is mandatory for certain organizations (those with 15+ employees, government, staffing agencies, and unions). Others take a legal / precautionary standpoint. Diversity programs are not mandatory and generally uncommon.

    Your article demonstrates a degree of Affirmative Action backlash; it is perceived that minorities and women are given preferential treatment and are under qualified. A very ?us versus them? approach. The spirit of the law for AA is to provide equality during the hiring process; all candidates must be qualified. It is absolutely illegal for companies to focus on quotas and focusing on earning a specified number of ‘diverse’ workers. The intention is to help level the playing ground for diverse candidates that wish to compete for jobs (who have historically fallen second to the majority group). Furthermore, even with the EEOC and AA, equality is not a call we’ve gotten an answer to. If that were the case, why would a material pay gap exist between men and women given the Equal Pay Act of 1963? You wrote, ?I received a lot of e-mail after my last article, some of it very supportive and some highly critical, including some rather colorful remarks of a personal nature. Apparently, when it comes to diversity, a diversity of viewpoints is not welcome.? While not everyone responding to your article has the recruitment/diversity background that you do, I suspect most of them have had work experience. And that is enough to experience discrimination and oppression.

    In terms of assimilation, it is absolutely NOT the answer. In this instance subcultures are not preserved and workers are expected to leave their personal values and beliefs at the door ? as nice as it sounds, not a sustainable solution. Pluralism is ideal; for workers to assimilate to the core values (mission and vision) of the organization and sustain their culture. The purpose of diversity (versus AA) is to create an inclusive work environment for all employees. Not just those with diverse primary traits (race, gender) but secondary traits (socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, disabilities, religion, language, education, health, family status, etc., etc.).

    I guess the big question at hand is what is the business case? As you stated, ?Diversity is like an expensive hood ornament, out there for everyone to admire but serving no practical purpose.? As you know, the diversity function has only existed in the last 10-20 years. In its inception it was believed to be a socially responsible action. Those consultants that did not find the business case washed out with the so-called-fashion.

    The good news, is there is a business case for diversity. There should be a diversity scorecard to relate the objectives of the diversity function to the strategic mission of the company. The purpose of diversity is not the same in all companies; it is not just to diversify the racial / gender composition of the workforce. Based on the industry and culture of your company, you will have different objectives. A software company may face issues with age discrimination. Another company may have a problem with high turnover among female employees. While diversity topics surround soft issues, they are often quantifiable. Moreover, the color of diversity is many times green. If you hire a female employee with a salary of $35,000 and she feels that she works in a ?good-ole-boys club? environment or that she’s under-appreciated, the value on your capital investment is diminished. The cost of turnover among dissatisfied female workers is costly as well. The cost of lost production, posting jobs, hiring manager’s time for interviews, cost of severance, etc…it is no cheap feat! If this became a real issue, you may want to spend money on, for example, sexual harassment seminars (or whatever is the underlying issue). You will need to know how to measure the ROI to be sure the seminars are effective and solving the issue at hand.

    Surveying employees and customers is a great way to find internal and external opportunities to add value and profit to the company through diversity. Customers can provide great insight as well; you will need to understand a diverse market if you plan on selling to a diverse market (note successes such as Andrea Jung). It is not to be confused, however, with globalization. Outsourcing to China and India has very little to do with diversity in terms of knowing your customer considering the American workers are designing, advertising, and selling to the American market. As far as the Mayo clinic example goes, employees will need to have some cultural sensitivity. While customers would not refuse medical care, nurses/doctors could mistreat groups of people (ex: lower socioeconomic classes) and create a bad reputation and what is the cost of that?

    In response to, ? Whatever happened to not being judged by the color of your skin but by the content of your character?? my answer is that it never existed. When was the last time you met an Asian American person and not remembered their race? Or remembered them as a Euro-American person? Probably never. We should not teach one another to be color-blind because we are all different people in different dimensions. The purpose of an inclusive environment is to understand the uniqueness of different groups so we can better understand one another and better work with one another (to decrease affective and task relevant conflict). Equality does not mean Sameness. You need to understand that an Islamic woman will not shake your hand before an interview because it is against her religion. Or that avoiding eye contact is polite in many Latin American and African American cultures. You will need to critically examine these things so that you do not discriminate against qualified candidates or employees. That is the purpose of diversity.

  4. you make a lot of great points- your obviously a very smart guy

    I think yes, there is no hard evidence to support having a truly diverse mix of staff improves $$ results. I’m sure it doesn’t. But, I’m sure it doesn’t hurt results either, other than costing more. I beleive that, yes, a lot of companies just pay lip service to it, especially those big high profit-margin brand name companies who always have plenty of funds in their budget to attend every diversity fair etc. When I was a corporate recruiter I could never do much to address divisty (job fairs, extra targeted web sites etc) because my co. barely had enough money for a regular recruiting budget let alone an extra dicversity effort. It would have been nice though.

    I think having a program for diversity recruiting is the right thing to do (regardless of bottom line results) if your company can.

  5. Raghav, you have yet again gone to the point of the problem in a clear and precise manner. Your thought process and attention to facts, not emotion, are what makes your articles so compelling. I am sure you will be flamed for some of your comments by people who cannot divorce themselves sufficiently from the emotional argument to see deeper into the facts. For those folks, like Elza, if you are going to disagree, at least quote Raghav correctly.

    It is clear in your presentation that you believe diversity hiring can be helpful in some cases, but, as you state, only if it is done with equal fervor for the assimilation of the hired candidates. That is just as true for non-diversity candidates, and all hiring practices. Let’s be honest…most businesses talk a big game about making sure hired folks fit in, but sadly fail to do much to make it happen.

    Diversity hiring is more about hitting the numbers, and less about hiring the quality or cultural fit needed. As a result, those diversity candidates who are hired are too often forgotten when it comes to further development programs. Such attention to the hiring numbers diverts attention away from the needs of the hired diversity candidate, creating a disservice to the very people who are supposed to be helped.

    Diversity needs to be less about numbers, and more about the career lifespan experience of the diversity employee. As long as diversity is force-fed to corporations, and as long as the reports have to balance to the ratios required, it will be resented. Failing to understand this simple fact is what has made such program less effective than they should be.

  6. Elza:

    It is not the business of business to insure equal outcomes, or even equal opportunity under our present system.

    If it were so, then we should make a concerted effort to hire the stupid, who are the most discriminated against segment of society in hiring.

    The blatant use of interviews and assessments, all perfectly legal in this oppressive society. deliberatly and callously eliminates from consideration the most needy and deserving from opportunity.

  7. For those looking for quantitative data on diversity might check out research on the SHRM website which has several white papers on the subject and is actually the process of working on a new certification program. You might consider taking classes at such places such as the Institute for Intercultural Communications (www.intercultural.org) which also supplies hard statistics on workplace diversity and how to better handle a global workforce. Another great resource for the X and Y generation information is http://www.generationwhy.com.

    I don’t necessarily agree that there is a weak case for diversity – I think the bigger problem is a lack of good education on the topic.

  8. Huh. I recommend you spend more time ‘on the streets’. Ask your black or asian brother,latin and native indian sister,early retiree,veterans,gays and others regarding how they feel in circumstances were they are clearly not welcomed or included in hiring,promotion and recognition programs.

    ‘the staff in such stores generally does reflect the customer base because most employees live within a few miles of the workplace, as do the shoppers.’
    Oh,so that’s why you don’t see people of color working or shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch.

    ‘But preventing discrimination is why we have laws that explicitly address it.’ That’s a good one.

    Your article may stimulate discussion within corporations intent on improving their work culture.The number of concerned employers is faint in comparison to thousands of other firms who know better but care less.

  9. What you’re talking about here is recruitment verses retention. We’ve long since dropped the focus on quotas in recruiting and moved to broadening our networks to create a more diverse pool of qualified candidates. I can’t imagine that in this day in age anyone is asking you to hire someone who is not qualified for a position.

    Everyone in a corporate environment, including the recruiter, has a role in the retention of employees. I suggest you get involved in that process. Validate programs of ‘retention’ or ‘assimilaion’ of diverse candidate through support of programs that promote your companies values. You can participate in your agency by providing your executives with numbers. A retained employee is less expensive than a new hire on any given day in the fiscal year. It will also save you valuable time in your daily recruiting duties.

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