Was Corporate Diversity a Failed Experiment?

Given the Supreme Court's recent ruling on affirmative action, all eyes now turn to workplace diversity initiatives.

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Jul 17, 2023

Once upon a time, Keirsten Greggs and I had a conversation about the ability of recruiters to help shape the makeup of a company’s workforce. I don’t recall the entire conversation, but I think the gist of it was that we both think diversity is important and that recruiters can ensure they source diverse candidates. But I think Keirsten felt like recruiters could influence the decision of who to hire, and I was on the side of “hiring managers gonna hiring manager” and that ensuring good diversity ultimately was the responsibility of those who make the decisions to hire.

Fast-forward to now, when organizations are systematically dismantling DEI teams, all while strong, influential leaders are resigning from some of the biggest organizations out there.

From the outside, it feels like DEI has been a failed experiment.

But what we’re really seeing is the last gasp of the status quo trying to keep its power. Chief diversity officers and equality initiatives were easy for insincere companies to get good press. Organizations made splashy press releases about their efforts but really didn’t want to make any changes to how they did things.

DEI leaders recognize the uphill battle and are either over it and walk out, or they are pushed out because they are trying to make real changes and the powers that be don’t like that.

What’s really frustrating is how long this has been going on. I wrote about this three years ago…almost to the day. I’m not a diversity expert, nor do I have insight into the inner workings of all the organizations losing their diversity leaders. But I am familiar with how hiring managers think, and I recognize when entrenched ways of thinking overtake the desire to do the right thing.

Breaking behavioral patterns is hard, especially when the benefit doesn’t feel immediately tangible to those in charge. Organizations have been trying to move the needle, but things like mandatory anti-bias training, pre-hire assessments, and annual performance reviews are hindering diversity, not helping it. Clearly, the stick approach isn’t working; maybe it’s time for the carrot.

Numerous studies support that diverse companies perform better across multiple factors — team performance, profitability, and even sentiment. That should be carrot enough for leadership; yet the struggle to change hiring behavior is certainly lagging.

That’s where recruiting comes in. Beyond fixing the systemic challenges your recruiting process might have, all recruiters can do their part elevating under-represented candidates to help build the diversity pipeline that so many companies claim is hindering their goal for more diversity in the upper levels. Here’s how:

Ask the managers to help out, especially if it’s outside of the day-to-day. This one was suggested by Harvard Business Review, and I think it’s brilliant. In their example, they suggested asking hiring managers to participate in college recruiting to get them excited about candidates they don’t typically see.

As someone who had to wrangle volunteers for different events, I can attest to the power of novelty to open someone’s eyes. Whether it’s college recruiting, job fairs, mentoring local youths, or partnering with local trades schools, asking managers to get away from their status quo seems to help break down biases.

Even if it’s just helping to interview a candidate in a different department, it shifts the mental model in a positive way.

Point out what’s missing on a team and recruit for it. Hiring managers are sometimes scared to hire someone who will challenge the status quo, which often results in hiring the same person over and over and over again.

So when you sit down for the intake meeting with your hiring managers, really push for filling what’s missing, not what they already have. This should pave the way for better hiring across the board and prime hiring managers to think differently.

Call out patterns when you see them. I am sure a lot of you out there are talking back at me while you read this: “I present diverse candidates all the time, but they always pick the one candidate that looks and thinks exactly like them.” 

I get it. I saw that happen a lot, too. So call them out on that. Pull up their past hires. Pull up the hires for their department. Show how they keep hiring the same candidate repeatedly. Sometimes people don’t think they’re acting incorrectly because they can justify each event as it happens. It’s harder to justify when confronted by repetition of that event.

On the flip side, celebrate hiring managers who finally break their pattern and start to think and hire differently. Positive reinforcement is a powerful drug!

Share data loudly, frequently, and to anyone who will listen. This goes beyond calling out patterns. This is using the information you have from across the entire organization — hiring, promotions, succession pipelines, performance ratings, employee relations, terminations, anything that highlights the actions that lead to the reality of talent diversity in your organization.

And don’t just tell one person. Tell everyone. Build a dashboard and post it on your intranet. Talk to leadership and make sure they have a true picture of talent both horizontally and vertically within the company. Point out the good actors, and ask for help to replicate what they’re doing.

Check your own biases. Recruiting is a tough job, and it can sometimes lead tired practitioners to take the path of least resistance. And so despite your best intentions, you might find yourself presenting candidates who look and think the same as the rest of the team because you know the hiring manager won’t push back and you’ll finally be able to close that damn req that’s been staring at you for the past six months.

Don’t do that. Stay strong. Critically review the candidates you’re sourcing and presenting. Are you falling into patterns? Does your data support a diverse pipeline? Don’t assume that just because you believe diverse hiring is important, your actions will follow suit. It takes time to build a habit. Keep working at it.

Ultimately, I don’t think recruiters will single handedly solve the diversity issues in corporate America. It will take a continued, concerted effort to change how we think and act about diversity in organizations. Thankfully, recruiters are a part of that effort — as long as they accept the challenge.

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