Getting Diversity Right: Start At The Beginning

You don't hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills. | Herb Kelleher

There is increasing evidence that diversity in the workforce and on teams leads to better decision-making, with a significant impact on competitiveness. For example, McKinsey found in 2019 that ‘companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile’. And in another study, researchers found that diverse teams make better decisions because those teams are more likely to stick to facts and reason objectively. Additional research revealed that more diverse R&D teams were more likely to produce radical innovations. These are all results that companies should strive for.

However, despite scientific evidence demonstrating the clear advantages of diversity, many companies lag in adopting practices that increase diversity. And it starts at the very beginning: hiring.

Herb Kelleher’s adage, at the top, is not actually what goes on in most companies, where the general attitude is to hire people for their skills and training: a meritocratic ideal. But the reality shows that some other factor is at work, other than a transparent process to match the requirements of jobs with people who can meet those needs.

And that factor is unconscious bias. And companies are trying to act on an awareness of the influence of bias in hiring by changing how they hire.

Hiring For Diversity, Not Cultural Fit

Like most things, making a significant change in your company or team’s diversity requires an analysis of your current practices around hiring. This should be contextualized with the awareness of how human cognitive biases can get in the way. (I’ve discussed some biases in the recent series on decision-making, Getting Strategic About Decision-Making, A Checklist For Strategic Decision-Making, and Strategic Decision-Making: The Decision Itself).

In essence, interviewers start with some sort of ideal candidate in mind, an unconscious bias. People are naturally inclined to like others who are like themselves. So, a manager who attended State U and played water polo will find it easier to interact with another graduate of State U or a former water polo player, or both.

My own experience in this context came from a busy two weeks I spent in Boston, years ago, trying to raise money for my software startup, when I discovered a sizable proportion of former Dartmouth lacrosse players were working in Boston VC firms.

This is an example of ‘looking glass’ merit. Those hiring tend to look for attributes that make them feel good about themselves. That can be more subtle than the Dartmouth lacrosse example. One manager might have a chip on their shoulder because of matriculating in a second-tier university, and so more easily identify with others of similar backgrounds.

When carried to its logical conclusion, these tendencies accumulate, leading to a highly non-diverse organization, one with a high degree of ‘cultural fit’. Patty McCord, the former chief talent officer at Netflix, paints the picture:

What most people mean by culture fit is hiring people they’d like to have a beer with. You end up with this big, homogenous culture where everybody looks alike, everybody thinks alike, and everybody likes drinking beer at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with the bros.

Cultural fit has fallen out of favor, but until recently companies would actively promote it as a goal in hiring and would exclude applicants from consideration who were deemed ‘not a good cultural fit’. That often translated to people ‘not like us’, excluding people who were different from the current workforce.

The thinking behind cultural fit is that a homogeneous workforce would communicate and cooperate more easily and perhaps share common values. But the cold reality is this leads to unbalanced, homogeneous organizations and misses out on the benefits — and, yes, hard work — that come from diversity.

Diversity is Hard

Even companies that say they are trying to make a more diverse workforce are subject to unconscious bias, for example, around race.

In a landmark case, researchers Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan created bogus resumes with either black- or white-sounding names; think Lakisha Johnson versus Emily Capuzzo. Those with white-sounding names received 50 percent more interview requests than those with black-sounding names.

Other research has determined similar bias against candidates with black-sounding names from elite universities fared only as well as candidates with white-sounding names from less selective schools.

Perhaps companies are just giving lip service to diversity, or unconscious bias plays a big role here.

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Not Fit, But Values

If we want to build a balanced and heterogeneous culture, what should we do? First, eliminate the use of ‘cultural fit’ in hiring.

Facebook, in 2015, created a training program that led to tens of thousands of employees attending, where attendees learned about a group of unconscious biases that plague businesses, such as performance bias and maternal bias. Just as important, they directed everyone to reject the use of ‘culture fit’ in interviewing and feedback on performance.

Atlassian, the collaboration and productivity software vendor, intentionally reframed their strategy for hiring away from ‘cultural fit’ toward ‘values fit’, as defined by Aubrey Blanche, Atlassian’s former global head of diversity and inclusion (now at Cultureamp):

Focusing on "values fit" ensures we hire people who share our sense of purpose and guiding principles, while actively looking for those with diverse viewpoints, backgrounds, and skill sets. We're trying to build a healthy and balanced culture, not a cult.

This requires that the company not only define what those values are — at Atlassian, these are a dedication to transparency, empathy towards customers and colleagues, and initiative to drive positive change — but also to carefully craft a highly structured set of questions to assess if a candidate would thrive and contribute to a culture with those values.

Such a process involves throwing away the loosey-goosey, free-form interviews that are sadly common even today. Asking people about their favorite TV shows is fine on a date, but it doesn’t really touch on their empathy toward others.

Also absent are questions that attempt to measure technical qualifications. Those sorts of determinations are better handled as a screening tool before values-oriented interviews.

This approach means companies have to introduce interviewers in the new process, indoctrinate them in unconscious bias, and train them to follow structured interview processes.

Blind Hiring

Perhaps the most compelling example of unconscious bias — and how to counter it — is the emergence of blind auditions for symphony orchestras, which before the 1970s were dominated by white men. Claire Cain Miller describes the practice and its outcomes:

In the 1970s, symphony orchestras were still made up almost exclusively of white men — directors claimed they were the only ones qualified. Around that time, many began to use a new method of hiring musicians: blind auditions. Musicians auditioned behind screens so the judges couldn’t see what they looked like, and walked on carpeted floors so the judges couldn’t determine if they were women or men — the women often wore heels. The Boston Symphony Orchestra pioneered the practice in 1952, and more orchestras began using it after a high-profile racial discrimination case was brought by two black musicians against the New York Philharmonic in 1969.

It turns out that blind auditions increased the likelihood of a woman gaining a seat in the orchestra by 25 to 46 percent. And now, decades later, symphony orchestras have become significantly more diverse.

And all it took was screens and think rugs to conceal gender and race. If only it was that easy to counter all the biases that cloud our assessment of others. Perhaps anonymity could be a general solution, not just for orchestras.

GapJumpers is a Silicon Valley company that has structured a blind interview process as a service to tech firms. They repackage applicants’ resumes to conceal indicators of race, religion, and other triggers of unconscious bias. As Claire Cain Miller reports,

According to the company’s numbers, using conventional résumé screening, about a fifth of applicants who were not white, male, able-bodied people from elite schools made it to a first-round interview. Using blind auditions, 60 percent did.

This removes much of the subjective reasoning that would have blocked the remaining 40% from that first interview.

After The Beginning

In the next post, I will explore barriers to diversity after people are hired. It turns out that de-biasing hiring might be easier than other aspects of business.

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