The Problem With Making (Fake) Business Cases to Advance Diversity Hiring

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Dec 20, 2021

Matt Charney’s ERE article “The Biggest Lie About Diversity Hiring” is a sobering bucket of water to the face. In short, the piece argues that all the bells and whistles that have been attached to the push for more diverse hiring have brought us no closer to achieving a diverse workforce than we were before we started trying. 

My aim here is to add two things to what Charney wrote: (1) It was William Shakespeare, not T.S. Eliot, who said the thing about life being full of sound and fury and signifying nothing, and (2) if it is true that the needle is not moving despite our best efforts, then we need to start preparing ourselves for what comes next. Because while Charney’s perspective was originally published in an online talent publication, it won’t belong before his views reach well beyond recruiting professionals. Soon enough, C-level executives will get wind of it. 

Indeed, the bucket-of-water-in-the-face moment for me was Charney’s excellent point that when CEOs and presidents and COOs and others responsible for the bottom line realize that DEI initiatives are not making them money, and may not in fact be doing what they were intended to do, do any of us trust that these execs will continue to put weight behind them? Sure, some will, but it may not be the foregone conclusion that it is now. 

My guess is that the big secret, one that you have to be careful not to utter to the wrong CEO, is that DEI may have no quantifiable financial ROI. 

I am skeptical that even the biggest of big data will be able to definitively prove the theorem that a diverse workforce = profitable organization. There are just too many confounding factors in the market. The most diverse, equitable, and inclusive typewriter manufacturer will still have trouble selling typewriters. 

Which is to say that we should not be putting muscle behind DEI because of its supposed impact on the bottom line. We should do it because building a fairer society is morally correct and important to keeping that society going. In our culture, employment is a major tunnel through which the historically oppressed can pass through to gain the comfort and the respect they deserve. Keeping lanes of traffic open to all is how we avoid the entrenched power structures that deaden a society.

And standing at the gate of that tunnel is you, lonely recruiter. 

So when the next round of strategic planning waters down this round’s commitment to diversity, and the one after that waters it down even further, and the diversity consultants have pivoted, it will still be you, standing at the gate of the tunnel, justifying why you should let in this candidate or that candidate. 

We should think now about how we are going to do that when diversity issue fades from the minds of those leaders who never really cared about it in the first place or, worse, have become hostile to it. 

Charney’s article points out a few good strategies, like doing away with criminal background and credit checks, as well as adding flexible working arrangements and pushing for better child care. These are great but in some ways out of our control as recruiters.

My suggestion is to push against arbitrary minimum requirements for roles and start doing it now while there are more jobs than there are workers willing to fill them. It may seem just an expedient tactic in the times we are in, but chipping away now will widen the door of that tunnel forever. 

Arm yourself with the tools to question years of experience and degree requirements. You can ask up front, “If we have a compelling candidate with 9 years of experience instead of 10, will we look at them?” Or, “Can solid work experience in the field cover for a lack of degree?” Or just screen candidates who are near-hits anyway and then — in the name of moral good and furthering our society — ask for forgiveness rather than permission. 

Your job is not to cling to the arbitrary lines others have made but to expand on what is possible. (OK, your boss might not agree with this, but still.) When you chip away at those gates, you invite more people. That’s how you expand on what is possible. 

As recruiters, “possible” is really the only land we live in. We offer options, not solutions. And as the landscape for supporting DEI changes from moment to moment, and from hiring manager to hiring manager, we should strengthen those muscles that allow recruiters to do what we do. 

Framing the universe of candidates and distilling it down to who is possible is a great power we have as recruiters. And as T.S. Eliot said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

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