The difference between diversity hiring and a 'diversity hire'

December 3, 2021 - 12 min read

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What is diversity hiring?

Common mistakes when hiring diverse candidates

“Diversity hire” vs. a culture of inclusion

How do you measure diversity hiring goals?

Treat people like people

Hiring for diversity is a priority for most organizations. Social justice issues, national attention, and accountability from Fortune Magazine (and subsequently, the coveted Fortune 500 list) has brought diversity and inclusion to the spotlight. But how exactly does one attract and hire diverse candidates?

The answer would seem to be straightforward, but there’s a hidden trap in diversity recruiting initiatives that triggers decades of unease. Dating back to the uproar against affirmative action in the 1970s, some people believe that inclusive recruiting strategies unfairly favor unqualified candidates due to their minority background.

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How are modern companies expected to walk this tightrope? Is it even possible to implement “color-blind” hiring processes while simultaneously maintaining acceptable diversity metrics? It’s possible, but not easy or fast. This article delves into the difference between “diversity hiring” and a “diversity hire,” how to correct for bias in the recruitment process, and ways to build an inclusive, welcoming workforce. 

What is diversity hiring?

Diversity hiring isn’t about hiring to the brochure — that is, hiring candidates that make a workplace look more diverse. Diversity hiring is the development and implementation of a strategy that corrects for bias while attracting, and retaining, qualified candidates.

Why is diversity hiring so important, and why do organizations have to correct for bias? Well, in truth, bias isn’t a black or white issue (both literally or figuratively). Everyone has bias, and it’s ingrained on an unconscious level. These implicit biases affect how we interact with others, and — for those of us who are people managers — may affect how we recruit and promote diverse talent within our teams.

Having implicit biases doesn’t make us bad or racist, but it does make us vulnerable to societal and subtle influences. In fact, it’s possible for us to internalize stereotypes about our own culture or group. In order to correct for the common tendency to — knowingly or unknowingly — take adverse action against marginalized groups, we have to implement a thoughtful diversity and inclusion strategy (with metrics to match).

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So why bother? Why is it necessary to give people from underrepresented backgrounds special consideration in the hiring process? In the modern workforce, aren’t all candidates given the same opportunities?

The sad truth is that there’s a lot more work to be done across the labor market. Although people of color make up nearly half of the general population, the majority (78%) of the United States workforce is white. Americans without disabilities are employed at 2.5 times the rate of Americans with disabilities. Women make up 58% of the workforce, but only 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs — with even fewer of those being women of color. Men are twice as likely to be hired regardless of the gender of the hiring manager. And 46% of LGBT workers feel that they have to hide parts of their identity at work or risk discrimination.

Aside from being the right thing to do, cultivating diverse teams has benefits for the organization. Diverse organizations are happier, more productive, more competitive, and more welcoming environments. Groups that are diverse in gender, race, and age make better decisions, and earn more revenue. But this magic doesn’t happen just from hiring efforts alone. Teams see the greatest innovation and growth when managers and leaders know how to draw out, build on, and be inclusive of diverse thinking, backgrounds, and perspectives.

Common mistakes when hiring diverse candidates

In her piece “Do Diversity Hires Really Make Us More Diverse?” Jessica Lim neatly summarizes the challenges with hiring to fill quotas:

“Diversity hiring” is great in theory. In practice, there is frequently a (conscious or unconscious) belief that diversity hires were hired due to their demographic rather than their skills or abilities...Hiring just to fill diversity quotas will only reinforce the idea that a woman’s (or any other oppressed demographic’s) marketability lie not in her abilities, but instead her ability to fill a quota...It is our responsibility to make sure these new employees — and their coworkers — know that they are valued for their abilities, not just their ability to fill a quota.

You should never have to ask whether you’ll be able to successfully balance hiring for diversity with finding qualified candidates. This question reveals an unconscious bias against people from underrepresented backgrounds in the talent pool. Qualifications and demographics are not mutually exclusive. 

“Diversity hire” vs. a culture of inclusion

Being the only person of a particular background can be an isolating and uncomfortable experience. Sometimes, being the only person from a minority background is a sign of tokenism — and sometimes it's just a sign that a company is just beginning its diversity efforts

Regardless, it’s important to make efforts to ensure that every single person feels welcome at your organization. Diversity hiring practices are not about an employee’s day-to-day experience at work (at least, not in the sense that everyone should see them as a “diversity hire”). It’s about providing accountability at the leadership levels of your organization. That means that while you may consider it in your recruiting strategy, you stop relating to people as their demographic as soon as they walk through the door.

People are people, and they want to bring their whole selves to work. It’s important to recognize their efforts, accomplishments, and skills. When a person feels “tokenized” — like they’re responsible for representing their entire group — their mental health and sense of belonging suffers and ultimately, they leave. Whether by leadership or their colleagues, employees of color are three times more likely to leave their jobs because of unfair treatment.

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How do you measure diversity hiring goals?

Efforts to hire a more diverse workforce are the heart of every diversity recruiting strategy, but they’re not enough. An organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion has to go beyond surface-level. Here are some ideas to keep your company accountable in an authentic way:

Understand deep diversity

Diversity isn’t just about the qualities that you can see. Aim to promote a company culture that welcomes people from a variety of backgrounds — including socioeconomic status, country of origin, education, professional experience, and thought. The more people can connect with one another, the more welcome they’ll feel, and people bond over all sorts of things. You may find people connecting over pets, kids, vacation spots, hometowns, or any number of shared experiences.

Measure your success

While you don’t want to fall into the trap of treating people like numbers, metrics are an important part of keeping companies accountable to their commitment. However, there’s no magic formula for how many people is the “right” amount of diversity. Moreover, diversity isn't just about talent acquisition — it's about retention, too. 

Work with your leaders, human resources, and people within your organization to determine what the right goals are for your team. (Hint: if you have a department or board that looks — or thinks — too much alike, start there). 

Be transparent

Your path to creating a diverse workforce may not be straightforward. You can revise your outreach and hiring strategy, only to find out that you can’t retain diverse employees. You may fill new cohorts with a variety of people, but lack heterogeneity in your executive board. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. But even when progress is slow-going, you maintain trust by being transparent about the struggle and reaffirming your commitment.

Ask for help

Statistically speaking, our networks tend to be made of people that are similar to us in many ways. Organizations can widen their potential candidate pool by asking team members for referrals. In addition to helping you source resumes, your employees might appreciate being given the opportunity to be part of the hiring team — especially if it's for a role they know well. Job seekers tend to appreciate seeing people from different backgrounds in the interview process.

Educate yourself and your team

The purpose of diversity hiring strategy is to correct for implicit bias — and everyone has implicit biases. Work with a DEI professional to conduct training, review your processes, and understand the state of the workforce. Taking the time to understand what researchers and DEI leaders have found on diversity in the workplace can help provide context for your efforts.

Promote diverse leaders

People are more likely to join and stay at a company when they see representation at all levels. As you establish your workplace diversity metrics, make sure that they apply to all levels of your organization. Give thought to career development and write inclusive job descriptions so that all employees know your company is a place where they can thrive.

Treat people like people

At their root, bias and stereotyping let us be lazy about how we see, interact, and connect with people. We reduce them to a single characteristic and don’t bother to go any further. But people are complex, and the historical treatment of people from underrepresented groups is even more so. 

Organizations who put together thoughtful diversity hiring practices help undo decades — and in some cases, centuries — of unfair treatment. But more importantly, it helps to undo decades and centuries of internalized bias. The fact is, qualified candidates exist everywhere and come from every walk of life. It’s the company’s job to empower them to thrive.

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Published December 3, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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