The Diversity Recruiter’s Dilemma

Being a diversity recruiter must feel like being in an M.C. Escher drawing. Just when you think you’re getting ahead, you realize you’re heading back to where you started.

Success is elusive because diversity recruiting goals are poorly defined and one-dimensional. Your goal is to increase the proportion of women and other minorities in the candidate pool. But whatever success you achieve is blunted by a failure to support integration with special efforts. Most employers that commit to diversity recruiting do little to ensure that managers devote the time and energy necessary to ensure that diversity hires fit in with the organization and receive the support they need to succeed. It’s not that diversity hires are singled out for this treatment. The same is true of most hires in most organizations, but that’s another article. In this article, we’ll focus on how diversity recruitment can be a success.

Changing the Definition

After my recent article on diversity, we placed a question on LinkedIn asking people who were familiar with diversity programs to tell us what value they thought these provided. Mary Jane Sinclair, SPHR, president of Sinclair Consulting, summed it up best: “A ‘good’ initiative is one that is tied directly to the business plan, goes beyond being an extension of affirmative action, and sets a culture that accepts everyone not because of who they are but rather what they bring to the table. Instead of ‘diversity training,’ organizations that are high performers recognize that this is a change initiative aimed at promoting RESPECT!!!” This succinctly describes what diversity initiatives need in order to succeed: a solid business case, which is usually most conspicuous by its absence.

Another response that provided an excellent example of when diversity really made a difference was taken from a Joel Barker program on innovation and diversity. In 1986, Ford was faced with an onslaught of high quality Japanese models. The company brought together the following diverse group: management, laborers, designers, car lovers, Ford lovers, Ford haters, soccer moms, and others. The outcome was the tremendously successful Ford Taurus that saved Ford from a disastrous loss of market share. The new door design came from a line worker who made suggestions that resulted in a better door, easier installation, and a seven-figure savings for the company. This was a group that was unified in purpose, be it like or dislike of Ford cars. They also had a vested interest in the outcome.

Barry Goldberg, principal at Entelechy Partners, Inc., puts it well: “The TRUE value of diversity is in getting differing points of view and skill sets involved in finding new solutions. Teams with diverse skill sets, points of view, and even cultural backgrounds have access to a broader level of thinking than those that are made up of more similar associates.”

Contrast that scenario with the typical diversity initiative that has no discernible outcome associated with it. Limiting diversity to race and gender defies logic. There has to be some unity of purpose and an outcome the diverse group cares about. Otherwise, as another respondent told us, you might as well believe that bringing together Michael Jordan, Hugo Chavez, a pimp, a high-school dropout, Claudia Schiffer, and a pygmy onto a team will improve output. The range of diversity has no impact on results. There are limits to how diverse a group can be and still work together.

Requirements for Success

Some organizations compensate recruiters based on successful hires, often defined by job performance. While performance on the job is proof of a successful hire, as most of us know, a new hire’s success or failure has little to do a recruiter’s efforts. What managers do to help a new hire fit in and the work environment they create is ultimately what makes the difference. The number one reason employees leave is because of their supervisors. Diversity hires are no different in this respect.

The problem starts with how diversity programs are implemented. The goals are set at the organizational level, usually by HR. Recruiters are assigned diversity targets without any consultation with managers. Hiring managers, either for a lack of process or the availability of a business case, don’t direct recruiters as to how to integrate diversity goals with job requirements. That leaves recruiters serving two different masters that don’t have much to do with each other. What a manager values is diversity in skill sets, but what the organization directs a recruiter to do is find diversity in race and gender. Further, managers get little support or incentives for integrating diversity hires.

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The end result is a process that’s being done backwards; instead of starting with a business case and working to define the diversity requirements from it, organizations start with the diversity requirements with the hope that a business case will emerge. It’s no surprise then that most people are skeptical of the value diversity programs provide.

Research in social psychology has established certain fundamental principles governing human behavior that influence the level of success individuals find in the jobs. This is why a manager’s role and the organization’s culture are critical determinants of the success of a diversity effort. The following fundamentals are of special relevance to diversity programs:

  • All human behavior is goal-directed, with the primary goal being to belong and feel significant. No one will do anything without a purpose. That much is true of any act from breathing to launching a rocket to the moon. Most people’s behavior is directed at belonging and feeling significant. Since much of that flows from a person’s work, in situations in which a person is hired without much thought to meeting these needs, it’s not likely that he or she will want to stay or be able to succeed. Diversity introduces people into an environment that has not seen much of them (that is the primary goal after all). Given the need to belong, it would take a very special person or a major effort on the part of the organization to ensure that this need is dealt with.
  • People are creative decision makers and want and need to make decisions that affect their jobs and the manner in which the work is performed. That means people want to use their skills to help solve problems. But when candidates are hired for their diversity alone without any thought to what problems their skills will address, then we have another point of failure. You can’t very well make an omelet without any eggs or solve problems that you have no skills for. As mentioned above, diversity recruiting divorced from business needs makes no sense.
  • Human behavior occurs in a social context; the cooperation and contribution of people solve problems. Cooperation requires having something to cooperate on, i.e., a shared need or purpose. As the Ford example above illustrates, diverse viewpoints and skills solve problems when one exists.
  • The strength of a person’s intention to perform the behavior corresponds with the likelihood of the behavior, but individuals have incomplete control over intended behavior and are influenced by their environments. A person having a strong intention would persist in goal-directed behavior for a longer period of time than a person with a weaker intention. Intent is largely motivated by the direction and support offered by a person’s supervisor and the work environment. Organizations are collections of individuals, not skills, races, genders, etc. An inability to motivate employees to get behind a specific goal or purpose weakens the intention-behavior link. Diversity hires need to know what links their skills and experiences to the goals of the organization.

Some 50 years of research show that programs related to employment will not find success if they violate or ignore these principles. And diversity is no exception.

A Mosaic Isn’t Random

Recruitment efforts aimed at increasing diversity need to be revised if they are to find success, which will then lead to broader acceptance. We’re decrying the lip service to diversity when the effort is made only on the hiring side. It results in only half of a program that needs a greater commitment on the management side to make it a value-adding effort for the company.

We must first accept that a broader definition of diversity is required, one that goes beyond race and gender. Second, diversity recruiting efforts need to be based on a business case that addresses a specific business problem. Even a social cause must lead to some tangible benefits or else it will never gain widespread support; in business, the benefit should be an improvement in company performance. Last, diversity programs must involve managers in both defining the requirements and deciding how to integrate diversity recruitment with business needs.

The first time many people became aware of diversity programs was when SHRM started passing out lapel buttons with lots of little squares of different colors. They called it a mosaic. Look up the definition of a mosaic and you’ll find that it is “a picture or decoration made of small, usually colored pieces of inlaid stone, glass, etc.” A mosaic is not a random collection of diverse elements; it has to form a picture. If we can get around to accepting that, then perhaps diversity programs will show some promise.

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.

Chris Callahan is a senior recruiter with Management Recruiters of Woodbury, a Long Island-based executive search firm. Chris assists consumer goods manufacturers in building world class supply chains by providing them with the best professionals in the industry. Previously he held various supply chain management roles with a number of Fortune 500 companies. Chris holds a B.A. from Virginia Military Institute. He can be reached at callahan@mrcareers.com.

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