Diversity in Recruiting: How to Check a Company’s Diversity

May 1, 2005

Every now and again something happens which reinforces your values and motivates you to keep on keeping on. I had this experience the week after Easter in March 2005. You are going to find this difficult to believe but it happened. I was interviewing a black woman executive, who expressed an avid desire in leaving an organization because of its rampant insensitivity to diversity issues. The last straw came while she was discussing her potential for promotion with a more senior person. She was told, “You’re going to have trouble advancing here, let me show you why.” With that he placed his white hand beside her black hand.

American organizations are on an unfinished journey to diversity. Frankly speaking, some people have a natural bent towards fairness, some have felt and believed in a moral imperative to inclusion and diversity since they were kids, some came to this because it became politically correct, and some realize that diversity is a strategic imperative to bring about an effective workplace. Others, sad to say, just don’t get it. It’s sad because we Americans have this extraordinary dream of creating a nation where everyone has an equal opportunity, where there is justice for all and a prosperity that is shared.

Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the Chair and CEO of the Carlson Companies, Inc., in an address delivered in February 2004 to the 16th Annual Multicultural Forum, quoted Alexis DeToqueville, who authored Democracy in America in the late eighteenth century. “America is great because America is good, and when America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

A recent study, Senior Management Sees Benefits of Diversity, by Novations/J.Howard & Associates, a Boston-based global consulting firm (, surveyed more than 1,700 senior human resources executives on management attitudes and the diversity function.

Senior management at more than 60 percent of major companies accepts the business case for corporate diversity and believes such programs give a competitive advantage. The business case contends that diversity and inclusion efforts make a definite contribution to the bottom line by improving the performance and building new leadership.

While management at a majority of companies accepts the business case, at 18.6 percent there is ambivalence but even so they consider diversity good for the organization. At only 7.6 percent of organizations does management reject the business case but nevertheless acknowledges diversity as a “fact of corporate life.” Finally, management at only 6.9 percent of companies supports diversity primarily as a good defense.

Unfortunately, there is little we can do to counter the actions of corporate executives who just don’t get it. Maybe they will learn some day; probably not. I can’t help but think of Jimmy Breslin’s memorable line, “The only place that nothing is in doubt is the cemetery.”

What kind of information and guidance can we share with our diversity candidates? How can we help them to take a closer look at a prospective employer’s diversity, to evaluate its stance on diversity issues, fairness, and promotions based on performance?

Many people want to work for a company that is welcoming, inclusive, and in many instances committed to diversity. Some women and people of diversity are making a company’s commitment to diversity an important element in their job search. Why be one of a kind? Why work in a place that is not inclusive or where you will not be judged on your performance?

Here are a few methods to explore a company’s record or stance on diversity:

— Contact the alumni office at your college. Find out who works at the specific company; call them to find out how well women and minorities are represented

— Check out the company’s website. Some websites have a lot of window dressing “All that is baseline. It’s not proof of a real commitment,” says Sondra Thiederman, a consultant on workplace diversity issues in San Diego. “It’s a nice symbol but symbols aren’t worth very much. You have to go further. Many proclaim the right things but nothing is really happening at the company. A word of caution: if you have to be an MIT graduate to navigate their website to find diversity, it is doubtful that the company is serious.

–Surf the Internet to track down articles about the prospective employer; look up pending discrimination suits. Look at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website (; it lists major lawsuits and settlements. Call EEOC to discuss public information they may have about the company.

— Use the peripatetic method of getting information (Aristotle walked about while he was teaching, so, in order to learn his pupils had to walk around with him). When you go for the interview, get there early, walk around, talk to people; note how many people of color there are, look at interactions, cultural differences; are people friendly, interacting with and respectful of each other, working across cultural lines, etc.

During interviews:

o At the initial interview, observe the number of minorities and women in senior or professional positions; ask about minority representation at executive levels and on the board of directors; investigate what kind of diversity programs are in place

o At subsequent interviews ask to meet and speak with women and people of diversity; meet them and pose pertinent questions better to do it sooner rather than experience negative surprises later; these questions are fair; make them tough but respectful

o “Candidates should not be shy about telling a hiring manager that they care about diversity and ask about the company’s efforts and policies in that area. Ask how many senior officers are women and minorities, and how that figure has changed in the last five years. Find out if women and minorities are moving up at some kind of reasonable rate and whether they are interviewed for every opening. Ask about retention rates: high turnover among people of color is a bad sign.” (Taking a Closer Look at Employer’s Diversity, Kemba J. Dunham from the Wall Street Journal Online)

o Ask industry specific questions, e.g., in investment companies, how many diversity employees hold the most coveted high paying investment banking jobs?

o Ask the various interviewers to describe the culture of the company; ask them whether or not they use diversity suppliers; do they do business in the ethnic communities; are they interested in the emerging diversity markets

o Candidates should not be upset if the numbers are bad remember you are trying to measure the company and find out what they plan to do in the future are they serious or playing games?

o One way to judge the answers is by how nervous the person is in answering your questions; they should be comfortable in talking about these issues

o Does the company have affinity groups, diversity councils, how are the CEO and senior leaders involved?

o Find out where the accountability for diversity lies. Is diversity on the table? What is the leadership’s role in diversity? Are the managers held accountable for diversity? Are their bonus plans tied into diversity?

o Luke Visconti, partner and co-founder of DiversityInc, advises, “Remember that few places likely will be perfect. Only 5% of Fortune 1000 companies have a serious involvement in diversity.” He defines “serious” as a concerted, coordinated diversity effort with top management attentive, measured, and accountable.

For many years we did a great deal of diversity recruiting for the old Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). I got to know all the popular lunch spots and watering holes frequented by DEC employees and would advise prospective candidates to go to these places, get to know DEC people, and do some data gathering.

To this day when making sales calls, I still go to companies an hour or so early and employ the peripatetic system of getting information. This has been very helpful, most of the times informative, and a few times humorous and surprising. We completed searches recently at two major hospitals in two different states. In both instances I sat in the main reception areas and watched the world go by. I learned that both hospitals had large numbers of diversity patients and employees. One time, a few years ago, I arrived early at a very large company with well over several hundred employees on site. I spent an hour in the most spacious and magnificent reception area I had ever seen. Painted on the wall was a spectacular mural of a tribal scene in darkest Africa. The people in the mural were the only black people I saw all day.

I asked a few HR and diversity leaders what kind of advice they would give to diversity candidates who are interviewing at companies.

“The thoughts I have are around researching the organization prior to an interview, and then some specifics I look for in the interview process. Prior to an interview, I look at the organization’s website just to get a visual on the types of people represented in the pictures. I look at the mission of the organization for clues to commitment to diversity and inclusion, and whether diversity and inclusion are part of human resources goals. Finally, who comprises the leadership team, and do they reflect a commitment to diversity.

During an interview, is the topic of diversity raised, either directly or indirectly through the questions and conversation? If not, I would ask questions on topics such as commitment to community, values around decision making, etc. to assess if diversity is at the forefront of the hiring manager’s thoughts.” Linda E. Cataldo Tufts Human Resources Director Employment/ Employee Relations

“Many organizations have learned how to articulate aspirations for diversity, but for the prospective employee who wants to understand where an organization might be on the commitment continuum, evidence of access and inclusion is more important than diversity statements, awards, or presence at diversity events. Some basic considerations might include: ‘Are there diversity employees in key business roles, on the identified growth tracks and in senior leadership roles in the organization? How long has the organization demonstrated this level of commitment to access and inclusion?’ Ultimately this is where one gains insight about the culture and the realities that one will face as an employee.” Sadie Burton-Goss, Managing Partner, Goss Associates, Boston

“I take several things into account: what is my level of interest in the position? Is the business the company is in something about which I can get excited? Is the position an opportunity for me to grow and learn in my profession? Then I will do my homework which includes going online to research the company. What does the mission statement say? What do the news clips tell me? What are they most proud of? I try to find out online the composition of their leadership team and what they say to prospective employees in their human resources section.

Then I see if I know anyone who has worked there, is working there or knows someone who has worked there or done business with them and find out their story. I will also consult with friends and colleagues to get some other perspectives. When I visit the company, I look around and get a feel for the place. Can I see myself in this environment? How do people dress at work? What’s the feeling tone? Do people look upbeat and glad to be there? Phyllis Barajas, Human Resources and Diversity Consultant

“One of the errors diverse applicants tend to make when assessing the diversity-friendly climate of an organization is to examine various elements in isolation and make decision based on one or two positive — or negative — indications. For example, personal anecdotes from current or former employees, if taken alone, can be misleading as they very likely reflect that individual’s reaction to the corporate climate rather than a true sense of the overall situation. Similarly, indications like turnover rates, representation or lack thereof in the upper echelons, and assessments done by external organizations, if taken alone, can distort the true picture. The trick to assessing which organizations will best encourage our personal and professional success is to add all factors together to obtain an overall sense of where the climate lies and in what direction it is apt to be going.” Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D., author of Making Diversity Work (

“Speak to employees who are in the demographic that is experiencing the most challenges in that geographic area. Find out what they think. Try to get a sense of the climate when you visit the company. Does the company encourage and support affinity groups? Talk to members of your affinity group. Is there a mentoring program? If so, what is the process to participate? Are there flexible hours and is their meaningful participation and access? How difficult is it, and how long does it take for employees with disabilities to request and get accommodations?” Deb Dagit, Executive Director of Diversity and Work Environment, Merck & Co., Inc.

I appreciate their sound and practical advice and thought you would, too. Let’s end this article with two quotes about actions.

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit. Aristotle

A person’s actions define what he stands for. Pope John Paul II

Get articles like this
in your inbox
The longest running and most trusted source of information serving talent acquisition professionals.