Diversity in the Workplace: it's complicated

August 30, 2021 | By Paul Barrett

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Organizations and companies worldwide are striving to show they are openly promoting the creation of a diverse workforce. All well and good except many fail to acknowledge that the primary task for any organization, company, or small business hiring an employee, is to hire those candidates who are optimal in terms of meeting the job role requirements i.e. they possess the desired personal characteristics, skills, abilities, and perhaps necessary experience to do the job required.

In many cases, that simple primary task has been forgotten; with selection decisions being influenced by socio-political agendas/legislation or personal, biased preferences for job- role-irrelevant candidate features.

The simplicity of goal-focused selection among candidates
Selection among candidates for job-roles, development, or promotion in large corporates/organization through to small SMEs (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises) is driven by a primary goal: select those who will enable the organization to continue to trade or function successfully. To select on any other basis is to risk the future success, even the future existence of an organization.

What gets in the way of that simple goal

A. Explicit bias in those making selection decisions.
The preference for a pretty face or pair of legs, the skin colour of a candidate, their age, their gender per se, their bodily appearance (tattoos, face piercings), the ethnicity of a candidate, their religious beliefs, which school or university they attended, the sports they play (or don’t), a physical disability, indeed a whole host of what are mostly (except for some specific job-roles) irrelevant personal physical features of an individual.

B. Socio-political pressures/legislation
These may be social-group pressures e.g., those advocating on behalf of groups of individuals in society who are viewed as under-privileged, treated unfairly by a majority societal group, who are racially profiled to their social and economic detriment, who are treated as an underclass by a controlling societal group who deny them access to the privileges and rewards shared among that controlling group.

Then there are the pressures to make selection decisions based upon something other than the simple goal; such pressures may be government legislation or an organizational directive to undertake positive discrimination: to select among candidates based upon something other than their attributes necessary to meet the job-role requirements i.e., usually some kind of quota system which ensures certain targeted groups are over-represented among chosen candidates. The positive discrimination is usually based upon skin colour, age, gender, and ethnicity. The goal here is to counteract what is viewed as the negative, adverse biases in A. with ‘positive’ biases mandated by government or non-negotiable organizational policies.

Why is diversity a good thing?
We know that life, products, markets, consumer-perceptions, values, attitudes, and even socio-political expectations change over time. Simply hiring clones of an existing workforce is a recipe for gradual market irrelevance and obsolescence. Organizations must continuously and carefully

balance the mix of ‘similar-to-existing-incumbents’ and ‘diverse’ employees because these latter invariably bring with them the new thinking, perceptions, and innovation that keeps organizations ‘fresh’ and ‘current’. Always selecting “clones” of existing employees via an unchanging ‘target profile’ eventually results in a form of evolutionary stagnation in any large commercial, educational organisation, or SME, as continuously evolving social attitudes and expectations, markets, and new technologies gradually render them as “last years’ model”.

So, what can be done?
It is usually a simple matter for HR or even a wise individual themselves to put a stop to A. (explicit bias by decision-makers) because it is actually risking the future of a company by behaving in this manner. Imposing personal biases on objective decision-making is ultimately a sign of stupidity and egocentric narcissism. Neither are desirable features of any decision-maker.However, dealing with B (quota legislation/positive discrimination policies) is another matter altogether. In reality there is no “dealing with” legislation or mandated company policy. But it
only works to the advantage of the decision-maker under one operating condition. That is:

  • First, ensure that the primary goal is attained i.e., a shortlist of all candidates who meet the specific and properly justified requirements for fulfilling a job-role/selection for development or internal promotion.
  • Then, given all candidates meet those specifications, either choose among them using a random number generator, or impose the selection quota mandated by company policy or legislation.
Either approach can preserve diversity of choice and attain the overarching goal of selecting ‘fresh blood’. Those who impose such quotas without proper regard to job-role specifications being met by any candidate are merely risking the future success of those organizations they force to make such decisions.

The Devil is in the details

But the real devil lurking behind this is what persistent economic, educational, and social bias/purposeful denial of privilege, marginalisation, and denial of opportunity does to any societal group over generations. By definition of that persistent denial of educational, social, and economic opportunity, the creation of an underclass is the result, with the consequence that the numbers of potential candidates in any such group appearing in any “meets all job-role requirements” candidate list will be vastly under-represented. Random selection from such a list is useless for diversity purposes. It only works when the candidate list is already diverse in near-equal proportions of shortlisted candidates.

Under these adverse societal conditions, positive discrimination is the only solution, but with one critical caveat. An organization may be forced to choose candidates who do not meet all the job-specifications e.g., forced via legislation or mandate to employ someone as a marketing or B2B manager who has no experience of management, sales, or B2B roles. Or the organization faces “must have this percentage of this targeted group of employees in your organisation” legislation. To comply with such legislation is complex because an organization really cannot afford to employ people who do not meet “primary goal” job-role specifications, yet nevertheless must adhere to a quota requirement. To comply with the legislation while minimising the risk to the organisation requires a considerable degree of innovative thinking, creativity, and open honesty/integrity shared between the organization and ‘mandated’ employees. Get that strategy wrong and such legislation can ultimately and irrevocably damage the future prospects of the organization.

In short, creating and sustaining a diverse workforce is no easy task.