Hiring for Diversity

by Heather Bussing

Diversity is a tricky concept, both legally and socially. The idea is that each applicant should be judged on her abilities, experience and knowledge rather than stereotypes about who she is.

In practice, anti-discrimination laws are almost impossible to apply. Employers can’t either hire or reject workers based on a protected factor. (Protected factors are race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, pregnancy, marital status, religion, disability, medical condition, genetic information, military status or age over 40. State laws often protect additional factors such as sexual orientation.)

Theoretically, a company’s workers should reflect the general population in the community. There will always be some variation based on the job and the availability of qualified people. But the reality is that most people like to hire people like themselves because it’s comfortable, and they think they know what to expect.

So what do you do if you look around and realize your workforce is monochrome, male and Methodist?  You can’t just go hire a bunch of people based on their race, gender and religion to change your numbers. (For a great discussion of reverse discrimination, see Robin Shea’s White Guys Need Love Too.)
Heather Bussing, Editor, HR Examiner Editorial Advisory BoardHeather Bussing is an employment attorney and is the Editorial Advisory Board editor at HR Examiner. Full Bio »
So how does a company hire for diversity without also discriminating?

Equal is not the Same

The traditional approach to equal opportunity has been to presume that you should treat everyone equally and exactly the same. In a culture where Whites are the majority, companies pretend that everyone is White. If they treat everyone like themselves, then they can’t be accused of discrimination. Now, try that on in reverse. You are the only  man in a company run by women. They treat you exactly as if you were a woman–great shoes, by the way. You are being included and treated equally. And you are probably really uncomfortable.

Equal does not mean the same.  3+4 = 2+5  Both sides equal 7. Each piece of the equation is made up of positive, whole, numbers. But 3 is not 5. And most people involve some negatives and fractions. Human beings rarely add up.

Then in the name of equality, the employment lawyers have created “neutral” policies that cover every aspect of work. The policies must be applied uniformly, under all circumstances, for “consistency,” “fairness” and so “people know what to expect.”  The trouble is, there’s always some situation that doesn’t fit the policy. So you either have to start making exceptions that undermine the whole thing. Or you apply the policy without exception even when it’s arbitrary and unfair.

There are cultural, gender and race differences that are worth noticing and honoring. It’s one of those places where the Golden Rule loses some shine.

While you can’t consider protected factors in hiring, you can look at each candidate as a person. Hire for personality, attitude, curiosity, sense of humor and creativity. For a great list of perfectly legal attributes to look for when hiring employees see Jay Shepherd’s The 10 most important traits for job candidates.

Build Up, Don’t Break Down

Another method of avoiding discrimination claims is to break each job into component parts, tasks and required training or knowledge. The idea is you can match these objective, nondiscriminatory, factors and hire based solely on qualifications. This method is especially appealing because you can send the job requisition to a third party to source and screen candidates without ever knowing that someone is Hispanic or deaf or 50.

While this is a perfect approach to replacing the sensor in your dryer or adding memory to a computer, it’s not so effective for hiring human beings. People can’t be broken into component parts or defined by degree or years in a position or company. Categorizing, classifying and evaluating by component skills alone just objectifies people, which is as demeaning as stereotypes.

One of the really amazing things about people is that they are capable of learning new things every day and changing over time. Getting the right person to grow with the job is far more important than finding someone whose CV matches the job specs from last year.

It makes much more sense to hire people that can make your business better, who can make it money, and most importantly, the ones you want to spend the week with. So instead of looking at the job and breaking it down into tasks, look at what your business is trying to achieve, and build it with people who can grow with the company.

Diversity is Good for Business

Monocultures of employees who look the same, think the same and hang out with all the same people are bad for business. Having a diverse work force with broad networks of friends and connections increases the people who know about your company and how great it is. And that increases your potential customer base. (I owe this insight to China Gorman who helped push me out of my legal thinking and into the big picture.)

Diversity also spurs innovation. When you are too close and have been doing something the same way for a long time, it’s very hard to see how to improve or change it. Having different people with different perspectives brings fresh ideas and insight into  your company. They show you how your company really fits into the market, and how you can better serve the businesses and people who are your customers.

Bottom line: Don’t set up a hiring system to avoid discrimination lawsuits. Hire people who are good for your business. And that probably means people who are different from you.


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