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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Help! How Do I Make My Workplace More Diverse?

Dear OOO,

I’m a (white, male) hiring manager at a not-very-diverse company. I would like to help make us more diverse, but we only seem to get people who look like us applying for jobs, and I have no idea how to get people who don’t look like us to apply. How can I get better at hiring so we diversify our staff?

–Mark

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I yell a lot about the still-woeful lack of diversity in my industry on the internet, which means I get variations of this question all the time from friends and coworkers and acquaintances and even complete strangers. As much as I love being considered an expert on anything and everything, though, this particular line of inquiry is always a little confusing to me. I don’t know if your field is like this, Mark, but white people in mine are sometimes treated (by other white people) as if they’ve unlocked some mystical secret when they simply … hire Black and brown people.

I bristle a bit when people tell me that hiring people from a diverse range of backgrounds is difficult, because it’s not; it just necessitates effort. When white people say that hiring more Black and brown people for your overwhelmingly white office is hard, the subtext is that it is harder to find qualified Black and brown people than it is white ones. But that’s just patently false. There are plenty of qualified non-white candidates for literally any job, and the only way to end up interviewing only white ones is if you are unwilling to put in the work to get a more diverse pool.

I don’t mean to pick on you, Mark. I fully believe that you genuinely desire to make your company better by making it more diverse, and I promise I will give you concrete advice for doing so. But I do think it’s important to understand the systemic issues at play before getting into the nitty-gritty how-to, because hiring diversity is a field that needs a lot more critical thinking, and you can’t get that from a step-by-step guide. I’d encourage you first to read widely about workplace diversity both in your industry and more generally, and discuss what you learn with your colleagues.

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OK then, here’s the advice you actually came for. I’d start by trying to identify the things that might be discouraging people who don’t look like you from applying. At the very least, I’d wager, folks are reluctant to send their résumés because they are well aware that you don’t usually employ people who look like them. Who can blame them? Talk to your current employees of color (you do have some, right?) about how the company could improve their work lives, and make the changes they ask for. (Reassure them that it’s not a trick question, but realize they may not tell you anything, not because you’re genuinely doing a great job but because research shows people of color are actually penalized for advocating diversity at work.) Look at your company’s retention rates for different groups of employees, and if they vary according to race or ethnicity or gender, think critically about why. Reflect on the differences between diversity, equity, and inclusion and figure out how to create an inclusive workplace. Then, when you do identify great candidates (more on that below), you can tell them about all the positive steps you’ve taken to fix your own mistakes.

Once you have taken all these steps, and not a second before, focus on active recruiting rather than just filtering through résumés that find their way to you. While publicly posting job openings is an important step toward a diverse workforce, it is not remotely sufficient. You need to use the same networking tools that historically have kept companies overwhelmingly white and male to diversify them. That means asking all your contacts who they recommend. (One big caveat: Do not ask prominent people of color in your field for their recommendations unless you already know them well; you have not earned the benefit of their knowledge, and making people feel put upon absolutely will not help.) It also means scouring LinkedIn, Twitter, message boards, or other places in your field where people gather for prospects. Going to professional conferences and other events in your field can help too, but it is not a replacement for doing this more painstaking work.

This will take a ton of time. I am currently working as a hiring consultant for a couple of media organizations, and because I have to track my hours for billing purposes, I know that I recently spent 25 hours on one search. The only reason it didn’t take a lot longer is that I had already done quite a bit of ground work. I look for people I want to hire even when I don’t have a job opening, precisely so that I’m prepared when I do have one. If you start doing the same, I promise you will feel less overwhelmed next time.

You could, of course, outsource all this legwork to a headhunter if your company has the budget for it. If you do this, though, make absolutely sure you pick one with a demonstrated track record of diverse hiring—and someone who will not be afraid to tell you the truth when candidates say they don’t want to work for your overwhelmingly white organization.

But I’d encourage you not to outsource this job, at least not yet. The best headhunters are going to be orders of magnitude “better” at this than you are, because they’ve already put in the prep work. But the best thing you can do for the benefit of your company—and your own career—is to put in the work yourself.

Lastly: When you are scouring the internet and your connections’ connections for people to hire, be smart about what qualifications you actually need in a candidate, versus which ones are just about your own failure to think creatively. Eradicate your brain’s “minimum years of experience” filter and please never list this on job postings. You’re screening for talent and skills, not time served. Don’t look only at people who have held identical roles in the past, but at ones who have developed relevant expertise in very different jobs, then ask them if they have an interest in making a change. If you’re hiring someone to manage one or two people, I promise you can consider candidates without previous management experience and that, with some guidance, they will learn to be great managers. Remind yourself that someone took a chance on you for you to get where you are now, and that people who look like you are a lot more likely to get those chances than people who don’t. Then, once you hire someone, mentor them so they become part of your company’s next generation of leaders and can show the rest of you how it’s done.

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