The “Talent Shortage” Problem Is a Diversity Problem

One of the top headlines of post-pandemic rebuilding is the shortage of talent, including entry-level labor and leadership pipelines. But is the talent shortage the real issue or a surface manifestation of a deeper problem? Perhaps other workplace concerns might give us some clues: 

  • People who were raised poor are less likely to be hired.
  • Even “egalitarian advocates” discriminate against older generations
  • Google made headlines by firing Black women leaders and losing its partnership with the HBCU graduates’ network. 
  • Asian-Americans often are not recognized as potential leaders.
  • The unemployment rate of autistic college graduates remains close to 85% even though they can be up to 140% more productive than typical employees when properly matched to jobs.   

This does not look like a talent problem. This looks like a problem with recognizing talent. 

The “Talent Shortage” Problem Is Not About Shortage

Organizations expect talent to look and sound in specific ways — to be packaged as fast-talking, accent-less, wrinkle-free, extraverted, unencumbered by caretaking, and preferably tall, light-skinned, and male. We have a hard time recognizing talent in any other package. Even if our lives depend on it — literally. 

If we were better at recognizing talent, perhaps we might have had a Covid vaccine even sooner. We might have had other vaccines and life-saving treatments based on the same m-RNA science sooner.  

The talent behind the m-RNA research that led to Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines came in a female, immigrant, butcher’s daughter package of Katalin Karikó. She lacked the propensity for self-promotion and organizational politics — these would not be taught in socialist Hungary or by her blue-collar parents. And so, her talent was not recognized. 

Despite her great scientific work and decades of unparalleled dedication, Dr. Karikó was demoted, expected to quit, threatened with deportation, and never paid more than $60,000 during her academic career. 

Eventually, the quality of her research was acknowledged by BioNTech, a German start-up founded by Turkish immigrants, which offered her a position and helped move the work on m-RNA forward. However, for 25 years, she kept going with little support and recognition.     

Weeding Out Talent

Perhaps Dr. Karikó’s story is an exception. On average, do we know talent when we see it? Do we hire the most qualified applicants? Do we reward and promote the most competent contributors? 

Sadly, we don’t. Up to 81% of new hires fail, according to Leadership IQ’s Global Talent Management Survey. This suggests that typical selection procedures might be doing a better job at weeding out talent than bringing it in. Research indicates that systems for identifying employee “promotion potential” also fail due to evaluation subjectivity and the focus on how people look, sound, and carry themselves, rather than competence.  

Talent “weed out” does not start in the workplace; biases and the lack of valid measurement stifle the talent at schools. One example: Sanaa Hiremath, an 11-year-old autistic girl from Florida, earned a Guinness World Record title for the largest mental arithmetic multiplication problem. But she failed second-grade math. “They gave her pencil and paper and told her to write 1-20 and she could not because she can’t hold the pencil,” her father explained

Issues with fine motor coordination are common among autistic and dyspraxic people — and have nothing to do with cognitive ability. But many talented kids are held back for similarly irrelevant reasons, hurting individuals and reducing the talent pool. 

Later, selection methods that don’t align with job requirements “weed out” the talent further when class migrants interviewing for, say, engineering positions “fail” to know enough about golf, autistic people “fail” at eye contact, and those raised in collectivistic cultures “fail” at self-promotion. Those with multiple marginalized identities may “fail” at all of the above.  

Too many selection systems still rely on unstructured interviews, despite their lack of validity. Poorly defined “culture fit” is used to justify arbitrary preferences based on affinity bias. Those who make it through the selection process face the same biases in performance evaluation, developmental opportunities, promotions, compensation — the entire talent lifecycle. 

Including Talent by Design

Fragmented, add-on diversity interventions do not work. Systemic problems require systemic solutions, such as inclusive organization design. Reaching, identifying, and equitably developing talent from all backgrounds at every stage of employment is the key to thriving, talent-rich organizations. 

Companies of all sizes provide examples of success. In 2020 Walgreens Boots Alliance, a Fortune 500 company with about 450,000 employees, was recognized as a top disability equality, as well as top LGBTQ, employer. And that was before hiring Rosalind Brewer, the only  (as of the time of hire in early 2021) Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. Meanwhile, Twilio, a cloud communications company with about 4,500 employees, actively recruits for diversity and strives to reach 100% on the belonging & diversity index with zero gap for minority employees. 

Organizations of all types can effectively welcome diverse talent. Moreover, best talent practices and best inclusion practices suggest the same solutions benefit both organizations and individuals. The practical steps below can help.

Inclusive Recruiting

Recruiting from communities facing employment barriers can take a shorter- or a longer-term form. The immediate recruiting approaches include advertising in media serving specific ethnic, veteran, identity, or disability communities. Specialized organizations can help: Specialisterne has done neurodiversity recruiting and employer education since 2004, and Disability:In reaches many disability groups. Additionally, vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies in each state provide both employee matching and the extensive transition and support services to help employee success and retention. 

Meanwhile, campus recruiting can be extended from a handful of better-known institutions to a full range of colleges serving Black, Hispanic, Tribal, and Asian American and Pacific Islander populations, as well as schools focused on students with developmental or learning differences, such as Beacon College

In addition, recruiting from local state and city colleges can reach first-generation college graduates and students from working-class families who have the potential to become exceptional contributors but often experience employment barriers. To find talent with experience, consider partnering with AARP, workforce50.com, or specific professional associations.

The long-term talent pipeline strategy, or reach-out, is forming relationships with diverse communities through internships, apprenticeships, and other educational programs. Contrary to stereotypes, such programs do not require changing individuals to “fit” or changing jobs to lower expectations.  

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For example, Twilio’s Hatch program is a six-month software engineering apprenticeship for underrepresented persons with non-traditional educational, professional and personal background. The aim is to place Hatch apprentices in full-time positions and on a path to senior positions — without compromising their identity or forcing their personalities to fit an expected norm. 

Moreover, Walgreens’ programs for employees with disabilities defy stereotypes of “low pay, low expectations.” Job standards and pay are the same for all employees, regardless of disability. Thus, do not lower standards; develop individuals and match jobs with their strengths. 

Finally, inclusive recruiting requires careful analysis of job descriptions to ensure that position requirements do not discourage qualified women or individuals from marginalized communities from applying:

  • Focus on key and essential job requirements (e.g., does a software engineer or a copywriter really need an “outgoing demeanor” and “the ability to lift 20 pounds”?). 
  • Avoid biased (sexist, ableist, ageist, etc.) language such as “digital native” or “hard-charging.” 

Inclusive Selection

Too often, individuals from underrepresented groups face underemployment because the least job-related elements of the selection process (e.g., discussions of personal interests in unstructured interviews, small talk) favor the most privileged. Inclusive organizations must align all talent-related decisions with core job requirements based on job analysis — not additional, arbitrary criteria at best marginally related to the job. 

For instance, because homogeneity-supporting subjective criteria and affinity bias are often disguised as “fit,” Twilio banned the term “culture fit.” The tyranny of fit can also be moderated by focusing the definition of fit on values, not personality or style.

Performance on essential criteria should be assessed with the most valid selection tools, such as work samples, simulations, and job knowledge tests, adapted as necessary for accessibility (e.g., the use of screen readers, demonstrating outcomes by multiple techniques). 

Competency-based hiring focused on performing core job tasks has been a staple of neurodiversity and disability-focused hiring for over a decade — with great productivity and retention outcomes. And with the recent “mainstream” attention, making all hiring skills-based will not only increase the availability of talent in organizations but likely reduce employment rate gaps between majority and minority groups.

For some roles, elaborate selection systems are unnecessary; the simplicity of The Body Shop’s new first-come-first-serve approach based on three basic job requirements can save everyone much time and stress. Simple systems may also reduce the effects of hiring biases that often accumulate with each step of the more complex systems. Regardless of the complexity, transparency is essential to fairness-focused hiring systems, as both best inclusion practice and the best talent practice.

Inclusive Growth

Affinity and other biases influence performance evaluation, raises, and promotions as much as they influence hiring. The secrecy and politics of performance evaluation lead to over 70% of employees feeling that their evaluations are inaccurate and unfair

Inclusive talent growth and development requires validity and job-relatedness of evaluation criteria; job analysis must be at the center of all talent-related decisions. Using science-based tools to evaluate leadership potential should help select leaders based on competence rather than overconfidence that stems from privilege, thus providing more growth opportunities for talent from modest backgrounds. Process transparency across the entire talent system is also a must.

Finally, hiring and developing talent is not enough if people can’t bring their full selves to work — support for true belonging is crucial. Masking disabilities and cultural code-switching compete for energy and attention with doing the work, are taxing, and interfere with full engagement. 

This is why Twilio’s “culture fit ban” aimed at inviting the full and true self to work makes sense. Creating an atmosphere of psychological safety and supporting the dignity of all employees is another area where best talent practices and best inclusion practices align to support both the organizational outcomes and individual thriving. 

The talent problem is a diversity problem. The post-pandemic talent crunch is an opportunity to redesign workplaces and promote the use of valid, evidence-based, and inclusive ways to identify and develop talent. Inclusive practices are also the best talent and organizational practices. Let’s see and support talent regardless of “packaging.”

Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, uses her extensive experience with global, cultural, demographic, and ability diversity to help create inclusive and equitable workplaces. She is a professor of psychology and the founding director of Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California.

Prior to her academic career, she built and led successful intercultural relations programs in global organizations. Her current consulting is focused on supporting organizations in creating systemic inclusion informed by an understanding of neurodiversity. Her other areas of expertise include organizational culture assessment and change, workplace justice and civility, and training and training evaluation. She is a contributor to the SHRM blog, focusing on wellbeing, belonging and inclusion, and is the editor of the upcoming book “Evidence-Based Organizational Practices for Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging and Equity” (Cambridge Scholars).

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