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Nov 11, 2021
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

It’s no secret that diversity and inclusion have emerged as perhaps the most critical areas of focus and investment for employers and talent organizations today. While DEI&B (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) has always been a recurring and integral part of recruitment, its increasing prominence among both practitioners and pundits can be directly attributed to the societal unrest — and national reckoning — around racial injustice and systemic inequality. 

Recruiting, of course, is undergoing its own reckoning. And rightfully so. The thing is, as much as we continue to scrutinize our talent acquisition processes, platforms, and policies in an effort to mitigate (or at least, rein in) discrimination in the workplace, and as much as we continue to invest in systems and staff to support these long overdue efforts, manifold studies and surveys suggest that these initiatives have yet to precipitate any meaningful change or immediate impact in terms of quantifiable hiring outcomes. 

Our DEI&B efforts, to paraphrase the brilliant poet (and virulent anti-Semite) T.S. Eliot, are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And this, sadly, is nothing new.

The Fallacy of Diversity Data

In the past year, the term “virtue signaling” has entered the mainstream lexicon, which, sadly, might be the most progress we’ve made in achieving tangible outcomes from diversity efforts since there’s a paucity of data proving causation between D&I hiring and positive business results. 

Either that, or I’ve lost my ability to source — because trust, I’ve searched pretty exhaustively for quantitative evidence to support the staggering surge in D&I spend. But almost everything that comes close shows not causation but correlation — at best.

Widely cited statistics like “companies with more diverse boards’ stock price outperforms their competitors’ by 60%” are what they’d call “circumstantial evidence” on a procedural level. While headlines like “New Stanford study find gender-diverse hiring boosts stock performance” are codified as institutional knowledge within the diversity industrial complex, unilaterally, they omit such material information as (to quote the same widely cited study), “it remains unknown how, and why, investors react to gender diversity.” 

As Vox’s Kelsey Piper wrote in an article aptly titled, “The Conversation About Diversity in Tech Is Getting Hijacked by Bad Research,” D&I research is rife with statistical anomalies and vendor sponsored “shadow papers” (the B2B equivalent of special advertising sections). As Piper writes of the preponderance of headline-grabbing yet suspect — and often specious — recruiting industry studies (some of which have, doubtless, been trumpeted in this very publication):

“The problem is that since these recruiting companies very rarely publish their methodology, their results are much harder for readers to evaluate independently. If there’s an error or a deceptive practice, it’s much less likely to get caught…That means any recruiting company can make a big splash — and get good PR — if they produce shocking results. Unsurprisingly, shocking results follow. The problem is there’s no way to tell if they’re accurate.”

Can I get an amen?

A False Narrative

Presented logically and in the context of a broader narrative, the pieces seem reasonably convincing, but, as every one of us Dick Wolfe fans knows, even the most compelling of circumstantial cases still leaves room for reasonable doubt. 

This is not to disparage the sentiment of these initiatives, nor is the purpose to in any way undermine what seem, on the whole, to be legitimate and non-cynical attempts by businesses to critically rethink, reconsider, and refresh their D&I strategies. 

The data does prove, though, almost any way you crunch the numbers, that hiring and developing a diverse workforce remain critical challenges for even the most inclusive and progressive of employers. And the stakes for succeeding couldn’t be higher.

However, diversity and inclusion have long been integral components of human capital strategy, and since the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act in 1972, diversity has been a central tenet of federal labor law and the heart of almost all related compliance efforts. 

Furthermore, issues like pay equity aren’t just recruiting trending topics or HR best practices. In fact, the Geneva Convention on Human Rights, a foundational set of protocols almost universally abided by global governments in regard to prohibition of things like torture, genocide, and the treatment of POWs (insert HR joke here), explicitly requires signatory members in a binding 1951 referendum to “ensure the application to all workers of the principle of equal application to all workers the principle of equal remuneration for men and women for work of equal value.” 

So, 70 years and change later, the fact that there are HR vendors and talent acquisition consultants selling employers on the idea that employee training, or dedicated tools and technologies, can even moderately impact this entrenched problem is, frankly, laughable. 

Furthermore, even the threat of blatant compliance violations — normally anathema to any HR function — clearly isn’t enough to solve an entrenched problem that, by all measures, only continues to get worse. 

The EEOC alone has a budget of almost half a billion dollars a year, most of which is dedicated to enforcement. Additionally, OFCCP record-keeping requirements have long been fully integrated into corporate hiring practices and enterprise systems. Similarly, while HR departments are generally understaffed and underfunded, American companies spent an estimated $8 billion annually just on D&I training. Another $400-600 million was spent on D&I consulting fees.

Those numbers, by the way, are from 2017, and, as you’d expect, annual spend has only continued to increase in the intervening years. Based on the fact that D&I spending for FY 2021 is estimated to be only around 2% to 3% higher than FY 2019 (well under the rate of inflation), it seems that paradoxically, this is one of the few post-pandemic elements of HR that is business as usual in a time when business as usual is anything but.

In talent acquisition, the fact that the status quo holds, even after years of effort and billions of dollars of investment in diverse hiring initiatives in the interim, should be of huge concern. The prevailing narrative that companies haven’t done enough to attract and develop diverse talent is largely false. 

The Wrong Solutions

There’s a good chance, if you’re reading this publication, like many others, that you’ve been led to believe that diversity hiring can be fixed by things like redacting identifiable information on resumes, or using more gender-neutral wording in job descriptions, or leveraging such existing people initiatives as ERGs or community-outreach initiatives in employer branding, promoting internal job opportunities, and generating more diverse referrals. 

It’s just that those efforts have had minimal impact because, in talent acquisition at least, we’re focusing on developing solutions that don’t actually address the fundamental problem behind diversity hiring practices. 

For example, if companies were truly committed to building a more representative and inclusive workforce, they would likely consider that continued use of pre-employment background, reference, or credit checks — 94% of employers use at least one of these screening mechanisms — effectively eliminates a significant percentage of potential diverse candidates. 

Also, it is a huge irony that while disparate treatment of people of color by law enforcement was the direct cause of last summer’s societal revolution and HR’s seeming D&I revelation, an overwhelming majority of companies still refuse to hire those with prior criminal convictions (particularly non-violent drug offenses), which, of course, are disproportionately people of color. Similarly, the use of credit checks — still used by around 1 in 3 employers — prevents millions of potential diverse candidates from active workforce participation. 

Look. It’s no secret that we in recruiting love nothing more than the next shiny thing (unless, of course, it’s building Boolean strings, in which case we’re still partying like it’s 1999). But this approach is not only futile for fixing diversity, it’s potentially counterproductive, too.

Because budgets are fixed (much to every TA leader’s eternal disdain), all those new tools and cool technologies tend to pull both budget and bandwidth away from fixing the more mundane, and frankly boring, foundational process and policy changes. Such changes are decidedly less sexy but infinitely more impactful than so much of what’s currently becoming codified as a “best practice,” which in HR, is often just a thinly veiled justification for sticking to the status quo.

So maybe, instead of leaning into them, moving the DEI&B needle means blowing up existing “best practices,” which seem to be pretty shitty — or non-existent — based on almost all observational and outcome data. Unless, of course, the research was sponsored by an HR technology vendor or recruiting agency.

Women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts for the same position; historically underrepresented minorities continue to be, well, underrepresented in terms of overall workforce participation; and the majority of those diverse workers who do get hired report feeling unsafe or unfairly treated due to their protected characteristics. 

Not to mention that after all these years, I’m still writing articles about D&I in recruiting. Somehow, we figured out how to apply the blockchain to credentialing before we figured out how to build representative employee populations. This is pretty much par for the recruiting course, of course.

Fix the Fundamentals

The fact is, “en vogue strategies” like unconscious bias training, redacted resumes, and building diverse talent communities that so many companies leverage as purported solutions to an entrenched problem effectively add a ton of unnecessary complexity to an issue that’s already one of today’s most complex in TA, and business. Solving D&I hiring challenges should start with simplification, not obfuscation. 

We don’t have to spend more money or add more tools to our stack to make the biggest diversity difference. We need to do the opposite, which is to eliminate other sources of spend that undermine the ROI of our DEI&B investments.  

These include some radical departures from best practices, things like the elimination of pre-employment drug screening or mandatory credit checks of all applicants. These are not only a giant pain in the ass for recruiters but also have a disproportionate impact on diverse and underrepresented populations. 

Maybe instead of working to eliminate bias (something that’s not ever been proven to even be possible, by the way), we should instead realize that bias impacts D&I well before candidates or applicants ever enter our hiring processes. 

Let’s recognize that basic qualifications that aren’t actually job requirements are a far greater barrier to diversity hiring than any individual manager or interviewers’ operating biases, unconscious or otherwise. Similarly, if a job posting mentions such benefits as flexible working arrangements or childcare reimbursements, it’s a moot point whether the language describing those inducements is gender neutral in terms of attracting female applicants.

And maybe, just maybe, the key to achieving equality and equity in hiring is to stop trying to fix what’s broken with diversity and inclusion, and start focusing first on fixing the fundamentals. As anyone who’s ever used an ATS knows, you can’t fight the system — but you sure can figure out creative ways to work around it when it’s broken. 

That’s why we invented sourcing, after all.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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