Diversity Programs are Not Enough —

Why Yet Another Diversity Program is Not Enough


If our unconscious biases trigger stereotypes that inadvertently influence our judgement about people, what exactly should we do about it when we’re on the ground sourcing and interviewing people? For the past 50 years or so, companies have been trying to close the diversity gaps in the workplace with diversity training programs. The idea is that if we raise awareness about the issue, then we’re less likely to allow biases influence our behavior. But real change can only come with true innovation in creating not only opportunities to reach more diverse people but also standard, objective ways to evaluate candidates.

Today, companies say diversity is important while still using bias-ridden recruiting proxies, like resumes from top universities. Yet another diversity program is not enough. The only way we’ll start to achieve real change is if we fundamentally reinvent the hiring process and start focusing on what matters: Skills to do the job well.

“To Invent the Future, you Must Understand the Past”
— Leslie Berlin, Silicon Valley Historian

The Roots of Diversity Hiring

To truly understand the issue today, we have to trace the roots of employment diversity to as early as World War I, when the government tasked a committee of psychologists to assess the skills of over 1.7 million men in less than 2 years for the military. Their job was to sift through massive volumes of people quickly and efficiently — a sentiment that feels uncannily familiar to corporations today. So they created a test of intelligence to screen people for the skills they needed.

Intelligence tests to screen people started becoming ubiquitous and businesses used it to gauge the abilities of their own candidates.

 

The only problem was that no one stopped to consider the inclusivity, accuracy and fairness of the content of these tests. It wasn’t until the 1970’s landmark Griggs vs. Duke case when the pressure grew heavy on companies to be able to prove that employment tests didn’t discriminate against subsets of people. For instance, one group of 13 African American employees filed a class action lawsuit against Duke Power Corporation because the company required that everyone score the national median IQ, except the lowest-paying department.

This requirement was unfair because the questions called for knowledge of language and education that were out of reach for underserved communities, which were primarily populated by minorities. It created an irrelevant barrier to entry for a disproportionate number of African American employees (see pie chart above). Duke lost the case, and set the precedent for companies to carry the burden of proof of the effectiveness of their selection process.


Shifting Mindset: The True Value of Diversity
 

While the post-Civil Rights investment in diversity may have stemmed from a fear of lawsuits, more recent studies in the value of diversity prove that diversity is impactful to the business holistically. Of the several benefits of diversity in the workplace, here are two critical:

 

1. Diversity of thought
 

Even the slightest differences in background at the table could improve your team’s decisions when solving complex problems. This theory comes from Scott Page in the early 2000s, a professor at the University of Michigan, who researches how teams work together.
 

To prove his theory, he created a mathematical model to test whether diversity of thought triumphs pure ability when a team works together to solve a problem. He divided the algorithms into two teams:

Team 1: Made up of experts who thought very similarly

Team 2: Made up of random algorithms that approached problems in different ways.

Turns out, Team 2 solved problems faster than the experts. Diverse teams have the advantage of diverse perspectives, heuristics and solutions that homogenous teams would have never think of.

 

2. Attracting more talent
 

Another imperative reason for investing in diversity is to attract more people, period. We need more people in STEM jobs more than any other professions. In general, programming jobs are growing 12% faster than the market average, according to a new Burning Glass report, which analyzed 25 million job listings.

 

"More than half of set designers, for example, are expected to use 3D modeling software such as AutoCAD, the same tools used to design an iPhone or a new car." - Burning Glass Report

 

But what’s even more interesting is that programming is no longer just limited to the tech industry. Technical skills (like coding) are increasingly important for other professionals, like business analysts who work with data, designers and marketers who create websites, alongside engineers who build products and technologies.


 

2016: Different Mindset, Same Programs
 

Companies understand the value of diversity and are clearly investing heavily in diversity programs, but they’re still having a difficult time closing the diversity gaps. Despite the fact that sociologists have found no positive impact of short-term diversity training programs, some versions of these programs persist 50 years later.

Dissecting some of these programs uncovers elements that are reminiscent of diversity programs of the 1960s and learnings that are crucial for any team today:
 

  • Diversity policies are backfiring. New research from Harvard Business Review points out that required diversity programs fail. This coercion goes against what social scientists know about what makes people change their behavior. People won’t change their mindset just because they’re told to do so.
     

  • Adding incentives for recruiters is not enough. Recruiters may push for diverse candidates, but hiring managers are the ones who ultimately make the decision. Incentive-based programs for recruiters are band-aids to the problem.
     

  • C-level diversity leaders signal long-term impact, but only if they’re immersed. A string of tech companies, like Salesforce, Airbnb and Pinterest, have hired heads of diversity to hold the company accountable for progress. This is a positive move as long as minority recruiters aren’t siloed. Instead, it should be an ongoing function of education for all recruiters.
     

While helpful in some ways, these types of initiatives don’t effectively help companies reach their goal of building more diverse teams. 

 

Skill-Based Hiring, Not Another Diversity Program

 

If traditional proxies like universities, resumes and referrals neglect to account for diverse aspects of people’s backgrounds, then why aren’t we using technology to reach more people and assess skills outside of these buckets?

 

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Even with the best of intentions, most companies have too many variables in interviews, putting them at risk for biases that limit opportunities for people from different backgrounds. The most impactful solutions are two-fold:

 

Rethink Traditional Recruiting, Use Technology to Reach More People

 

Regardless of whether or not you think we have a shortage of talent, you can’t create lofty hiring goals without a systematic process to reach more diverse people. Let’s say you’re a university recruiter with tough hiring goals this season. It’s logical to prioritize universities that are either local or elite to find candidates fast.

 

But today there are technologically innovative ways to cast a wider net. Using online hackathons, social networks, diversity clubs or building exciting challenges for students are scalable, new ways to reach targeted communities virtually.

 

For instance, Asana — a productivity platform company — is one company that no longer relies on in-person university recruiting tactics. Instead, it partnered with Door of Clubs (an organization that provides jobs and funding to student clubs) and HackerRank (a community of skilled developers of which I am cofounder), to host a Diversity Club Hacks event.

 

Over 100 female computer science majors signed up to solve online coding challenges. And college recruiting is proven way to boost diversity. And this has been proven to work. Harvard Business Review’s study found:

 
 Five years after a company implements a college recruitment program targeting female employees, the share of white women, black women, Hispanic women, and Asian-American women in its management rises by about 10%, on average. A program focused on minority recruitment increases the proportion of black male managers by 8% and black female managers by 9%.

 

Then Create Standard, Relevant & Blind Assessments to Limit Biases

 

The most objective filter for talent is raw skills. Slack, a communications platform, is the best example of the impact of standardized, skill-based hiring. Its engineering team has more African Americans than the rest of the company. The company’s been focusing its efforts on minimizing unconscious bias (not just as a program) but by adopting practices within its fundamental hiring process.

 

For instance, they got rid of the whiteboard tests in the coding interview, which often incites unnecessary anxiety for candidates who otherwise would perform well in a familiar environment. Leslie Miley, the director of engineering at Slack, says they give relevant coding tests that don’t reveal an applicant’s name or background.

 

“So we don’t know where you went to school, we don’t know what company you worked at, we don’t know your name, we don’t know anything about you when it’s graded.” — Miley on NPR

 

In fact, the same HBR study showed that — when executed well in a standardized way — hiring skill tests are one of the most effective ways to boost diversity in the workplace. By eliminating biases at the first step of the hiring process, a candidate’s pure skill (relevant to the job) can help mitigate discrimination.

 

People have been trying to solve the diversity problem in corporate America for over 50 years, but one of the biggest lessons we can learn is that true progress can’t come from add-on diversity programs. Tactics like coercion, policies or incentives are not enough to reach underrepresented people who don’t have clear paths to your door. The reality is that biases and subjectiveness is part of human nature. It’s hard to change biases that are ingrained in our subconscious, but you can challenge biases with real data from skill-based hiring.

 

 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Facebook’s unconscious bias training is mandatory for all employees.

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