August 15th, 2013 | 1:00 pm

What’s the Secret to Workplace Diversity? Stop Hiring People Who are Just Like You

filed under Managing Change

iStock_000017262943XSmallBy Michelle Hendelman, Editor-in-Chief

Familiarity is comforting, especially at work. Affiliations and similarities can go a long way in the office, but when does bonding in the break room over a shared alma mater or hometown become a hindrance to corporate diversity? Hiring managers and key decision makers in the hiring process meet a lot of talented individuals who each meet the requirements on paper, so how do they decide who gets the job or the promotion? Could affinity trump achievement? Let’s hope not.

There is a lot of focus right now on the role of unconscious bias in hiring and career advancement. This is the idea that underlying perceptions may cause leaders to favor the dominant group when making decisions about hiring, promoting, or any other factor that impacts an individual’s professional advancement. The subtle nature of unconscious bias makes it difficult to prove, but scientists are actually working on tests, like the Implicit Association test created by Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, professor of social ethics at Harvard University, that identify and address the hidden biases that impact our behavior.

Hiring for Diversity

According to a recent article by Joel Peterson, Stanford GSB lecturer and chairman of JetBlue airlines, who you hire is the one of the most important threads in the fabric of any organization. For Peterson, the solution to creating a more inclusive corporate culture is pretty straightforward: stop hiring yourself over and over again.

He states, “There’s plenty of research to show that we evaluate people more positively when we feel they’re more like us. Similarities in experience, attitude, political views, and physical appearance all increase the likelihood that people will ‘connect’ — even if those similarities are hiding weaknesses that make the person ill-suited for the job.”

This type of thinking is the basis of unconscious bias and if it remains unchecked, it will manifest itself negatively across the company in the talent pipeline, sponsorship opportunities, the payroll, and the boardroom. Peterson continues, “The value of a great hire becomes clear when people on your team are forced out of their comfort zone by an infusion of new ideas. That’s when the world begins to look a little different.”

The Business Case

A 2011 Deloitte study entitled, “Re-examining the Business Case for Diversity,” urges companies to revisit the issues of diversity and inclusion to assess whether or not there is measurable action being taken or if diversity discussions never become more than a bullet point on the quarterly board meeting agenda. The study suggests that business leaders must make the link between diversity and higher performance in order to truly embrace diversity initiatives.

The study states:

“You can have a diverse workforce without inclusion; and inclusion without diversity. But one without the other is only half of the business performance equation. Put simply: diversity + inclusion = improved business outcomes. We suspect that if business leaders can see a more granular link between diversity and business outcomes through the lens of inclusion, and this link resonates with personal experiences, then the business case for diversity will be more tangible. And this will help to close the perception gap between diversity and the bottom line.”

Some companies, like Calvert Investments, are taking the lead when it comes to actively assessing workplace diversity through hard data. In their March 2013 report, “Examining the Cracks in the Ceiling: A Survey of Corporate Diversity Practices of the S&P 100,” Calvert presents the findings from a survey they conducted with companies in the S&P 100 to evaluate the progress being made in the areas of diversity and inclusion.

The report summarizes the findings as follows:

“Overall, our assessment of the S&P 100 companies reveals a stronger commitment to workplace equality than ever before, with a growing number of companies investing in diverse employees. While there is a general lag between policies designed to promote diversity and corporate performance, Calvert believes that stronger commitments are ultimately the catalysts for improved action and performance. We are encouraged by companies’ renewed dedication to women and minorities in 2012, their emphasis on family-friendly work environments, and the evolving appreciation of their LGBT workforce. Moving forward, we hope to see greater representation of women and minorities at the executive level and in the boardroom, two areas that are progressing at a glacial pace in spite of investor interest.”

As the Calvert report indicates, corporations in general still have a lot of room to grow when it comes to populating their top spots with leaders who represent non-dominant groups. This issue brings us back to Joel Peterson’s point about hiring people who are similar to you. Only when the repetitive cycle of homogeneity is broken will we achieve the new normal in corporate diversity.

The Takeaway

All of these papers, studies, and articles about diversity underscore the importance of diversity. But what is diversity, really? When you start to define what diversity means in your organization, the answer is beyond skin deep. What companies should be striving for is diversity of thought, personality, and experience. This is where the real business case for diversity lies.

As Joel Peterson states, “More important, building a homogeneous organization is just bad business. You won’t have the variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and skills that are invaluable when you’re up against big problems, or facing big opportunities.”

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