Jessica Powell, the former Google Vice President who wrote The Big Disruption and explained how to quit your job, is here to answer your general but tricky work questions. Check back every two weeks for more management advice with a technical inflection.
Hiring a diverse team is supposedly a priority for our small tech company, but managers keep improving the same candidate profile for a role. When I push back, they tell me they don’t have time to make diversity a priority for this role or slow down to find a more diverse candidate pool. How can I convince them to prioritize diversity when there are competing priorities?
F.ew things are more blatant than watching companies pay lIp Service to diversity, but little in their recruitment or retention practices that translate those good intentions into tangible results. They will post a picture of a diverse workforce on the jobs page of their website. However, when employees point out the company’s poor diversity metrics, executives may respond that the pipeline of different candidates is small or that they don’t want to “lower the bar” (ugh).
It sounds like your company is well-intentioned but wants to prioritize diversity only to the point where other business goals aren’t compromised. And that’s the problem: when it comes to moving fast, diversity, while a long-term strength, can often seem like a short-term obstacle.
Attitude is a good example of this. Of course, when we need to hire someone for a role, we turn to our own networks. What better way to find good people than talking to people you know or who are friends of friends?
The problem is, research shows that our professional and social networks look very similar to us in several factors – race, gender, class, educational background, and age. As companies grow, they are filled with more and more people who are very similar.
By the time companies wake up with their diversity problem and recruiters can cope with it, the number of employees is so large and homogeneous that it is more difficult for people who are slightly different to assert themselves.
I have thoughts about this problem because I’ve worked in both large corporations and startups, but I also wanted to speak to someone who spends much of their work day addressing this exact same issue. So I reached out to Nilka Thomas, Vice President for Talent and Inclusion at Lyft.
When executives know the CEO cares about diversity, you can bet they are much more likely to care too.
It is very common for companies to wake up slowly with their diversity problem and only tackle it when they already have several hundred employees behind them.
“If you’re a big company thinking about diversity, it’s much more difficult,” says Thomas.
How can you get this right from the start?
Small businesses and startups often face a real challenge that many larger companies don’t have: the very real statistical probability that they won’t be there in a few years.
The need to hire new employees quickly can be critical to the existence of a company, certainly much more so than in many large companies, where a staff shortage can often be temporarily filled.
Imagine you’re the head of a 15 person company in San Francisco that has secured funding for the next 18 months. You want to prioritize hiring a diverse team, but you have an even bigger problem: you can easily hire someone for your company. You are in a city where technical talent is in great demand and you are competing with much richer companies. It’s hard to pass on a great candidate who is willing to take a risk on your business.
But don’t give up. Even when starting out, there are steps your exec team can take to make a difference.
First, consider setting a maximum time to set. If everyone thinks the hiring has to come tomorrow, they are more likely to be hiring the first person they know. Of course, everyone wants to hire as soon as possible, but if the default time frame is a bit longer, there can be a quiet (if still quick) effort to look beyond your employees’ existing networks and expand them to look for equally skilled employees Candidates from different backgrounds.
Second, research events (here’s a good list!) That make it easy to meet and network with diverse candidates – connections that can pay off as your company hires for future roles.
Third, encourage your company to recruit different interview candidates for each role. It would be even better if it made sure that at least one finalist is a diverse candidate – something that most big tech companies sadly haven’t committed to, although frankly it’s not that difficult to put into practice. Also read about how a candidate’s perception of performance depends on prejudice and what techniques are used to combat this performance.
Even with the above points, you may find that you are not getting to the candidates you need in the time period you set. You have to hire the best person you can find. I see – you are in a startup on the edge of a cliff looking into a shark’s jaws.
But keep talking about it as a company and as a leadership team. Even if you come up short, be aware of how you come up short and often think about how you can do better.
In small and large companies, transparency can be helpful for putting some social pressure on in places where a company misses its goals. When everyone’s intentions are as good as they say, examining diversity metrics at the management level – and ideally lower levels – is a great way for employees to see which executives are pursuing the company’s hiring goals.
This is not just about cheering (or shaming) executives, it’s also about encouraging conversation. Even if you choose to keep your diversity metrics private for your management group, reviewing these metrics together is a good starting point to explore opportunities for improvement and share tips between executives.
And be careful not to stop diversity efforts in the recruiting process alone. What’s the use of investing a lot of time and money in hiring a more diverse workforce if you are just losing those people faster?
“The patterns of preference that we see when we hire are the same patterns that exist of who gets promoted, who gets the special projects,” says Thomas. “So you have to look at the entire system.”
I like the way Lyft tries to address this problem: by bringing attitudes, employee relationships, and workplace policies under one person. After all, you can go all out of your way to recruit women, for example, but if your policies and workplace aren’t really women-friendly (which woman doesn’t want to pump breast milk into a pantry ?!), good luck keeping these women over time.
The biggest problem I’ve seen in both small and large companies is CEOs and executives treat hiring and retaining diversity as if it were an HR issue. HR can do all sorts of great things for you – expand the recruiting efforts, set up diversity and inclusion committees, track and publish diversity metrics, and so on. But unless leaders are individually accountable and are not forced to grapple with their own performance in this area, this remains an HR initiative and will never be as resonated as your company hopes.
Here’s an obvious, but often overlooked, point: if CEOs are genuinely interested in hiring diversity, they should point out to praise the leaders who have made progress in that area. When executives know the CEO cares, you can bet they are much more likely to care too.
Programs cannot replace people. And the people who have the greatest impact on diversity and inclusion efforts are at the top. Find out what kind of engagement the company can make to hold these leaders accountable and get involved. Most of all, this will help make the difference.