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.


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.