Pitfalls in Hiring for Demographic Diversity

Quick: why should your company embrace demographic diversity?

If you’re like most people I’ve encountered, your answer sounds something like one of the following:

  1. We don’t want to get sued
  2. Diversity is the right thing to do (or something about social justice)
  3. We can get more perspectives and be more creative
  4. We can market to a wider range of people

All four of these reasons are problematic, and here’s why:

The first one basically implies a quota system — how many of each type do we need to ensure that we stay out of court? The only value of anyone outside the primary demographics is fulfilling a requirement that would be entirely ignored if possible.

The second one isn’t much better — it’s about hiring people because of history and not because of the value that they bring to the company. A for-profit company isn’t in the business of righting the wrongs of the past; it’s in the business of creating value for its customers, which in turn leads to profit and fulfillment of the fiduciary responsibilities to stakeholders (and any deviation from that is a legal pitfall). Hiring anyone for reasons outside of the potential value brought to the company through the candidate’s efforts is unethical.

The third one is fallacious for several reasons. The first is that more perspectives does sometimes lead to creativity, but it can also preclude the requisite consensus needed to move forward and actually create. The second fallacy is that being a member of a demographic necessarily implies a specific perspective. The genetics that lead to identifiable demographics relate primarily to physical characteristics — thought processes and culture sold separately. The latter are products of socialization and education, and while there may be some correlation between these and demographics, to assume that demographics cause thought processes isn’t useful. Moreover, any given member of a demographic has neither the right nor [usually] the desire to represent all members thereof.

The first time I encountered the fourth reason for embracing diversity was when a chain store declined a marketing consultant’s proposal because the team offering it didn’t match the demographics to which the store marketed. I grant that marketing materials should be tailored to the audience, and that this may include demographic matching as relevant. None of that, however, has the slightest relationship to whom you hire. This is essentially the same error as the third fallacy, namely that people’s demographics are indicative of the activities occurring between their ears.

So, if all four of those common answers are wrong, why should your company seek out and embrace diversity?

Answer: it shouldn’t.

When talent acquisition is done properly, diversity is simply a byproduct. A recent study found that, the more women in senior leadership in a company, the more profitable it is. People foolishly started running to put women on their boards as if their XX genetic endowment was a $$. What they missed is that, when a company puts its best people forward, about half of that top talent is likely to be women. If your company is serious about finding the best people, you are going to look all over the place, and you are likely to find a very diverse array of people. Once found, a company that is serious about promoting its A-players will discover that the top looks diverse, too.

Inevitably, pointing this out leads to the reality check that the pipelines from which talent is secured are artificially homogeneous, and there are implicit biases that are inhibiting the recognition/promotion of talent (some help with that here). Both reality checks are stark truths that require taking extensive talent-maintenance measures in response, including internal audits on retention and promotion, constant reviews of the candidate pool, and continuing upgrades of how the company understands and defines talent. If diversity is lacking, it is crucial to understand that this is not a problem in and of itself. Rather, a lack of diversity is the evidence that at least one of the talent-maintenance measures is failing, and that you do not have top talent. If your company needs high-level knowledge workers to get an edge in the business world, then you need to have a deep focus on your human capital. You need to plan it carefully, nurture it, and promote it strategically. If you do, your company will be diverse, and it will be a leader, and it will be profitable.

If you make diversity the end-goal, however, your well-meaning demographism is not the solution; it’s the problem.