Strip Away the Excuses
To succeed at diversity recruiting, you must strip away your disabling excuses and get real. Getting real means you no longer tolerate the use of the word “can’t.” It means you start to recognize suspended business logic when you see it, and treat diversity like every other important strategic initiative.
With respect to diversity, it is my experience that organizations typically fall into one of four categories: obstructionist (they do as little as possible), defensive (they do only that which is legally or politically expedient), accommodative (they meet legal and ethical requirements, and perhaps a bit more), or proactive (they act before they have to). Do any of these sound familiar? If your organization falls into one of the first three categories, this chapter was written especially for you. It is time for you to look in the mirror and tell the truth. Pitney Bowes looked into the mirror and began a proven, documented commitment to diversity in the 1940s. One aspect of its mission statement declares that it will “value, actively pursue, and leverage diversity in our employees, and through our relationships with customers, business partners and communities, because it is essential to innovation and growth.” The company is proactive in that it holds itself accountable to certain standards for diversity and integrates diversity with other strategic initiatives.
Any diversity initiative short of a proactive program is not real; it lacks teeth and it lacks substance. Organizations short on commitment usually expose themselves in at least one of two ways: inadequate resource allocation and lack of accountability. All too often, organizations don’t commit adequate dollars to make their diversity efforts work. Yes, you may attend all the important Unity Dinners and People of Color Conferences. But now that we’re being honest, we know this is not real money. This is “make nice-nice” money. Organizations also underpay, overwork, and neglect to develop the skills needed to fulfill the roles tasked with driving the diversity recruiting effort. You don’t hear, “Lets not put Mary on that project because she makes too much money” with regard to other important strategic initiatives. So why diversity? Without proper resources, results suffer. But since few results are expected anyway, failure in diversity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Here’s what companies do when they allocate “real” resources to a project: They fund research to study the issue. They fund manpower to create a business plan. They fund a carefully thought-out, adequate budget, and put their most talented people on the project. They pay them well, give them the tools they need to succeed, and incent them to deliver the best possible results. They monitor progress by measuring intermediate and long-term outcomes. And if the team doesn’t deliver, they lose raises, or promotions—or their jobs.
Like many large organizations, Wachovia Bank has a developed diversity strategy; but unlike most organizations, it demonstrates true commitment to the outcomes and so developed metrics to measure progress. The company identified key factors of its corporate goal of increased workforce diversity, and began evaluating recruiters on the completion of these goals, offering incentives for those who presented a diverse slate of successful candidates. The “scorecard” criteria included number of hires, time to fill, percentage of diverse candidates, percentage of diverse hires, interview-to-offer ratio, and offer-to-acceptance rate (Garvey, Charlotte. “The Next Generation of Hiring Metrics,” HR Magazine, Vol. 50, No.4, April 2005).
This kind of accountability is the other clear index of commitment. It boggles my mind how people can sit at a big conference table and talk about how they “can’t” find any diverse professionals, and everyone else just passively nods in agreement. In the real world, where there is commitment, there are tangible, meaningful consequences for those who fail.
For example, when a consumer product company launches a new brand, a team of very smart professionals methodically conducts market research until it knows where consumers in its target market live, how much money they have, what cars they drive, and what they eat for breakfast. If that team came back and said, “We just can’t find any information about our target market,” there would be serious consequences. The team members’ superiors would question their every move, trying to determine what went wrong and whose fault it was.
These same questions should be asked of recruiters, HR professionals, or executives who say they “can’t find any” diverse professionals. Are we really to believe that these same companies that can dig up information on anyone, anywhere, can’t tell you where to find African-American accountants or Latino lawyers or Asian-American marketing professionals? Am I the only one having a hard time with this logic? Did anyone ever think that the same methodologies that led a company to open restaurants in Toledo and Santa Fe also could inform us that Xavier University in Louisiana graduates more African-American biology majors than any other university in the country, and has for twenty years (Isaac Black, African American Students’ College Guide [Wiley, 2000])?
I believe that’s called a trend—and it’s easy to spot with a little research.
So the first step is to come clean, admit you have committed inadequate resources or failed to require accountability, then strip away the excuses that have enabled you to fail for so long. I don’t care what your excuses are; in my eighteen years working in the corporate world and my eight years as a recruiter, I’ve heard them all, and they are almost always lame. While there are as many excuses for diversity failures as there are companies to make them, the following are the excuses I’ve heard most often:
1. “We can’t find any.” Well, you won’t find any if you don’t look. They are out there. Forget anything you’ve heard about the numbers of diverse job candidates shrinking. As with any statistical analysis, you must examine the numbers you read with care—and the reality is that every year there are more qualified diverse candidates, not fewer. For example, while it is true that the percentage of accountants who are diverse has been shrinking in the past few years, the overall pool of accountants is growing—so the aggregate number of diverse accountants is actually larger today than it was several years ago.
But these numbers shouldn’t matter to you anyway. The issue is not whether there are enough diverse candidates to go around to every organization. The issue is whether you can attract and recruit enough for your organization. This is called competing for resources—something your organization likely does every day. If the challenge were to find new clients, your organization would scour markets and databases, conduct focus groups, and generally do whatever was necessary to find them. Research is powerful stuff—it can reveal down to the street who lives where, how much they make, what they read. But when it comes to diversity, these principles often are not applied. No, when it comes to diversity, organizations run ads in the same old newspapers, attend the same old conferences, and wonder why nothing happens.
Now let’s think about what would happen if you applied the same targeted efforts that have worked on other initiatives. Imagine, for example, what would happen if you Googled “accountant” and “Howard University” (one of the leading historically black universities in our country). The names and networking contacts that come up will be largely African-American. Or even better, search for the “Top Fifty African-American accountants” on Lexis-Nexis. If you still “can’t find any” after you’ve called everyone in the results list, and everyone they recommend, and everyone they in turn recommend, I might actually believe that you can’t find any. But it won’t happen. You’ll end up with so many candidates you won’t know where to begin.
These methods probably sound elementary to you—even insultingly basic—but lots of folks have never tried them. Trust me: to this day I am still meeting with organizations that have never taken these basic steps forward. I have loaded the second part of this book with similar ideas to help you find the people you are looking for. These tactics are as simple as those I’ve mentioned above, and they work.
2. “Our search firm didn’t bring us a diverse slate.” Okay—so fire it. What would you do if you were trying to recruit a new CFO, and your recruiting firm brought you nothing but marketing people? There are many excellent recruiting firms out there today that can provide you with more diversity talent than you’ll know what to do with. You just have to hire them. Again, this is about business logic. Your search firm didn’t find any because it didn’t really look; it was paralyzed by the same excuses that paralyze you. The reality is, like most organizations, traditional search firms rely on their formal and informal networks to source candidates—and these networks have historically been bereft of diversity professionals. So when you are seeking a diverse pool, these firms are not much help; they are more likely to reinforce your paralysis. Find a recruiting firm with strong connections to diverse communities, and you will have all the talent you need. The resources in this book will help you get started.
3. “Diversity candidates just don’t make it through the hiring process.” This excuse is a corollary to “We can’t find any.” If your diversity candidates aren’t competitive, it is likely because whoever selected your candidates has settled in terms of fit and job qualifications rather than spending the extra time to find highly qualified diversity candidates. But they’re out there, and it’s your job to find them. You’ve got to get rid of the idea that to hire a diversity professional is to lower your standards or to somehow settle. If candidates aren’t making it through the process, go find better ones. That’s what you would do with majority candidates, right? Of course, there’s always the chance that the issue is with your hiring managers, whose biases are preventing diversity candidates from making it through. If this is the case, get real about it. By putting a greater number of highly qualified diversity candidates through your process, you will either move your numbers or very quickly discover that you have hiring managers with active biases. Either way, you’ll have the solution to moving your numbers.
4. “Diversity doesn’t affect us.” This is the “Every building in this area will be destroyed by the 9.5 Richter scale earthquake but not ours because we built ours differently” argument. With people of color in the United States currently numbering 100 million and that population growing rapidly, it is only a matter of time before this explosion impacts every organization’s customers and workforce (Jon Meacham, “The New Face of Race,” Newsweek, September 18, 2000). For some organizations—hospitality firms or consumer goods manufacturers, for example—the wave has already hit. For others—such as financial services and technology firms—the wave is further offshore but still approaching like a tidal wave. No matter which category you are in, you must have a plan and act aggressively. If you don’t, you will lose customers, talent, money, and market share. If this sounds like a breach of fiduciary duty—well, it just might be.
5. “Diverse professionals don’t want to work here—there is no one here like them.” This is circular logic and a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you tell yourself this convincingly enough, you’ll never even try to recruit any diverse professionals. Of course it’s true that some people don’t want to be “the only one” in a sea of something different. But from working with and talking to diverse professionals over the last fifteen years, experience tells me that this is far from the predominant view. The majority of diverse professionals I’ve worked with will work anywhere for the right opportunity.
I certainly don’t profess to speak for all minority professionals, but I will say that most of the diverse professionals I know long ago accepted the fact that to make it, they would have to adapt, at least at some level, to majority culture. Being the only one is not ideal—everyone feels more comfortable around people like them—but it is not usually a blocking issue. It is no surprise, however, that majority professionals underestimate this willingness on the part of diverse professionals to work outside their comfort zones, because most majority professionals have never had to make that choice.
6. “We don’t have the resources.” This is corporate-speak for “Diversity isn’t that important.” When you don’t have enough resources to achieve a goal, you are really saying the goal isn’t a high enough priority for your organization to fund it. Maybe that’s the right call for you. Maybe not. But let’s at least be real about it. When Staples CEO Ronald Sargent wanted to recruit more minorities, he knew that the effort would require more than just lip service. He also realized that casting as wide a net as possible would bring in some winning candidates and some that wouldn’t make the cut. So he approved temporary funding for more than fifty college students, who worked at the company for a trial period. At the end of the trial period, many students landed permanent jobs. Thus, Staples was able to adjust its recruiting strategies to align more closely with its stated commitment to diversity: “To understand why diversity is so important to us, you don’t have to look farther than your nearest Staples store. Our customers—whether they’re shopping in our stores, online, or through Staples Contract or Business Delivery—are a mosaic of different cultures, ethnicities, genders, and ages. So it’s not surprising that we strive for a workforce and a supplier network that reflect the diverse multicultural ‘face’ of our customers” (“Our Commitment to Diversity,” www.staples.com/sbd/content/about/diversity/index.html).
Take a look at what your company is funding for diversity. Is this the proper allocation of resources to prepare your company for the next fifty years? If so, I’ll buy this excuse. If not, you’ve got some work to do in reassessing priorities and reallocating resources. The point is, you can’t use this excuse unless you’ve actually done the homework and factually determined that your limited resources are better spent elsewhere. Do that, and at least you are exercising sound business judgment.
7. “We hired a diverse senior executive, but that hasn’t moved the numbers at all.” Well, no kidding. Senior executives do very little hiring, so they are not in a strong position to impact the complexion of your workforce. Also, the idea that a figurehead minority will somehow move numbers is greatly misguided. Managers will not be inspired to hire more Asian people by seeing an Asian general counsel. And candidates won’t necessarily come to your company just because you’ve got a prominent minority executive. In fact, that strategy could backfire because you could be telegraphing the idea that your commitment to diversity stops at window dressing. If you want your numbers to move, hire diverse middle managers. I’ll talk more about this strategy later in the book—it’s logical, and it works.
8. “Our hiring managers won’t cooperate.” I love this one. Another classic example of the suspension of business logic. Does the word “insubordination” mean anything to you? The only reason managers don’t do anything is because there is no consequence if they don’t. Make their compensation depend on achievements in diversity hiring, and you’ll see changes. Make promotions turn on hitting diversity numbers, and you’ll get results. This is not new stuff—you’ve got to motivate your people to achieve results, as with any other strategic initiative.
9. “We only promote from within.” To say that you are committed to building diversity but only hire from within is a joke. These two priorities are directly at odds. It’s like saying you are committed to growing flowers, but have a policy against planting things. It can’t be both ways. So decide which priority is most important, and move on. Once this decision is made, the rest can be sorted out.
10. “We made a mistake by promoting a lot of minorities too soon, before they were ready.” Since when does a successful organization quit after stumbling? Again, suspension of business logic. If it didn’t work, figure out why, address the legacy issues, and try again and again until you succeed. Minorities are successfully promoted every day. So you’ve got to look at whom you promoted and why it didn’t work. Were there cultural issues? Address them through training. Was there a mismatch between job and skills? A problem with fit? Maybe the problem lies at the root of your diversity program—maybe you are not trying hard enough to find the right candidates, and are settling because you have bought the excuse that you just can’t find any. This book will help you resolve the problem of finding and attracting the right people for the right jobs. When you have done everything in this book, and have successfully built your bench of diversity talent, you should never again have to promote someone too soon.
11. “We did diversity training and nothing happened.” Diversity training will help create an environment that is welcoming to diversity, but it won’t drive numbers. You must give your hiring managers the tools to effect change. The key to driving diversity numbers is to recruit large numbers of highly qualified diversity candidates. Training without a strong recruiting program is like buying a great new lawn mower without gas—it goes nowhere.
12. “We have run ads and attended job fairs, but nothing has happened.” The key to finding great candidates is to build ongoing relationships. It’s all about networking—about reaching out beyond the comfort zone of your traditional networks and getting to know different people. Think about where the nondiverse talent in your organization came from. Did you find most of those people by running ads and attending job fairs? Probably not. In fact, I bet you found most of them through word-of-mouth networking. So if you are not tapped into diverse networks, you will never get enough diverse candidate referrals. Much of this book will discuss this issue of disconnected networks, and will offer practical, step-by-step strategies for using the power of networking to drive your diversity initiative.
13. “Diversity results are not measurable, so there’s no way to really know if we’re succeeding.” This one just baffles me. There may not be the equivalent of a Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) standard for measuring diversity results, but there is always a way to tell if you are meeting your goals. You said you were going to hire three people of color this quarter. Did you? You said you were going to recruit at five highly diverse universities this fall. Did you? You get the picture. Or is the problem that you never set any goals in the first place? It is important to note that I’m not using the word “goals” as a synonym for “quotas” in the workforce. I’m trying to drive home the point that setting tangible, attainable, but challenging goals for your company is essential to measuring success.
14. “We don’t have the time or resources to train a bunch of new people.” There is a myth out there that diversity candidates are less educated and less experienced than majority candidates, and so will require costly training. This is complete nonsense, and goes back again to that weak “We can’t find any” excuse. If you take the time to hire qualified diversity candidates, you will spend no more resources training them than on anyone else.
Now that we’ve identified the most common excuses used to paralyze diversity initiatives, it’s time to strip them away once and for all. The following action plan will take you through a “get-real” audit for your own organization. Take the time you need to work through these steps. Once you’ve stripped away your disabling excuses, you’ll be ready to move on to building a productive, successful diversity recruiting program, and growing your business.
Copyright © 2006 by Joe Watson. All rights reserved.