Diversity hiring has been a much-discussed topic for a while, to the point that some people no longer believe in the sincerity of those trying to extend the participation of underrepresented groups in specific areas.
And I get it, balancing the need to hire quickly vs. getting the right people is the eternal dilemma all organizations face.
Add to that the practice of ensuring you have a diverse team, representative of different genders, backgrounds, experiences, and personalities, and it gets even more difficult.
So, without further ado, here are my areas of focus to help you create a diversity recruitment strategy that will give you access to a wider candidate pool and help you create a well-rounded team.
This is not a guide on how to tick a box for diversity or meet quotas. These are things I’ve picked up over a career dedicated to creating diverse workforces.
Why a recruiting diversity strategy matters
Better products and services
Recruiting diversity isn’t just an exercise in making your company look good by paying lip service to being diverse.
Every hire is an opportunity to add a new perspective that will enrich your team. It will require time, it will require commitment but, in the end, it will make your product more competitive, resilient, and widely usable.
An example of this lacking was when the team at YouTube couldn’t figure out why 10% of videos were upside down when vertical.
Turns out it was because some people shot videos left-handed horizontally and the app later adjusted them for vertical but upside-down. Of course, I’m not saying they should have looked for a left-handed person specifically, but it’s useful to illustrate how important it is to consider different perspectives.
A more concerning example was when facial recognition AI was not recognizing accurately the faces of black women. This is deployed AI, used by the police and governments a few years ago. Very scary that no one in the testing stage thought that this was something to train the AI on.
Recently, I joined a new company and the research team was talking about a project in my native Bulgaria. It was very interesting that, while I knew little about the research, I was able to contribute a lot to further their understanding of the cultural context they were lacking and improve the accuracy of the research.
While we can’t hire people from every nationality, it shows that our differences and unique factors can be your organization’s strength.
Access to more candidates
A focus on diversity will also help you to expand your pool of available candidates.
It’s a great way to give a career to talent who traditionally find it difficult to find work but still have incredible skills and knowledge to share with the world. And, of course, Dell gets to benefit from that talent and fill their positions!
All this will, of course, impact the bottom line of your organization—a major way to “sell” commitment to diverse and inclusive hiring for those who do not understand that it’s also the right thing to do.
How to ensure diversity recruiting
Diversity in sourcing—expanding the talent pool
Increasing the diversity at the top of the pipeline is where most of your focus should be.
Ultimately, you still need to hire top talent with the right skill set and experience, so you need to make sure you cast a wide net initially. Here’s what to focus on here.
Allow time for sourcing
You need to dedicate time to sourcing candidates from diverse backgrounds.
For example, while it may seem like positive discrimination that, if all applicants for a role are male (e.g. my recent software engineering job opening), I take some time to reach out to some female candidates and balance out the pipeline, I am not positively discriminating by hiring based solely on characteristics but ensuring that our role gets highlighted to a wider audience.
Another useful method is slightly decelerating the process.
When I was helping to scale rapidly at Twitch, I specifically said to hiring managers that we’ll take two weeks instead of one to shortlist candidates.
This ensured that we had more time to source and I also saw that, in the second week, the role gets a lot more diverse candidates applying.
When I asked those candidates why they applied at the time they did, they said that they took their time looking into the company as they were concerned that it was a bit of a ‘boys club’ (as a lot of companies around gaming can be).
Inclusive job adverts
Your job advert is likely how most candidates will first come across your organization and an open role.
There are a lot of things to balance to get it right—for example ensuring that it’s both informative and engaging. Now I’m going to add that you should make sure it’s not excluding diverse talent, either explicitly or implicitly.
Removing exclusionary language
Something I see a lot in job descriptions is words have an implied bias associating them with a specific gender e.g. ‘he/she” or “4-man team”.
Similarly, studies show that women are less likely to apply for roles that overemphasize qualities like dominance and competitiveness, and men for roles that overemphasize supporting and understanding.
Is this fair? No, it should be that everyone feels comfortable applying for any role, but this is likely something picked up during childhood that will take at least several generations to uproot.
In the meanwhile, there are paid and free tools to reduce gendered keywords.
Personally, I always use a couple of free tools because they don’t seem to agree on the same text (e.g. Gender Decoder: find subtle bias in job ads (katmatfield.com) and Gender Bias Decoder | Totaljobs think the same text is either feminine coded or the opposite).
After a while, you will understand which are the really loaded words and be mindful of their overuse. It’s better to aim for understanding than just blindly following what a tool tells you.
In my article on how to write zinger job descriptions, I focus on ways to remove generic job requirements like “communication skills” and, if necessary, replace them with something more meaningful like “the ability to communicate across functions and influence them”.
The more bullet points you add the more likely you are to exclude people who would be otherwise qualified but don’t see themselves as so.
An accessible application process
Something that’s not often talked about is the accessibility of application processes.
Some can be incredibly exclusive to people from different backgrounds or neurodivergent people e.g. overly long written interviews and psychometrics tests (which already suffer from questionable validity).
These can exclude people with disabilities from participating in the process altogether, even though they can perform their roles perfectly well!
The application process should be reviewed to ensure that only things that are necessary for the role are included.
For example, I once gave candidates the option to apply with either their LinkedIn profile, their resume, or a set of questions that I had designed to give me enough of an overview to make a decision in my screening.
I did this because there is a generation of workers, and people from certain countries, that have never written a CV in their lives but are amazing workers.
There is also a lot of talk about blind resumes and blind interviews. Personally, I‘m not a fan of them as I think it is just a band-aid and it can hide biases that will eventually come up over the course of employment.
Perhaps a controversial view as almost every applicant tracking system out there has the option for those now, but, if you truly believe in having diverse employees (not just a diverse talent pool), you will take the time to uproot as much of the bias as you can, not just mask it. That way you make sure that equal opportunity doesn’t stop at onboarding.
Referrals are a great way to engage your current employees and get applicants who’re more likely to be the right fit for the role because current employees have a deeper understanding of what you need.
However, when I ask for referrals, I always make sure to add an extra twist to the question.
I always ask “Whose voice have we not heard in your team? How can we get them here to contribute?” because, often, it makes people think about things a bit differently.
The last time I asked a new team this question I was met with quizzical looks. Then they had a pretty major oversight in the product strategy, which led them to realize that the team had worked together for so long, and the manager had hired so many people just like himself, that they were falling victim to groupthink.
Immediately, they were out there talking to their network and I was getting referrals for candidates they would have never thought of before I asked the question.
Removing Bias From Interviewing
Now that you’ve increased diversity at the top of the funnel, you have to ensure that the interview process is thought of inclusively.
This is where we go from just thinking about diversity to thinking about inclusion as well as part of the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) acronym.
Focus on skills and experience
In my article talking about interviewing for insight, I speak about remaining hyper-focused on skills and experience to ensure you get what you really need from a candidate.
In another of my articles about reducing bias, I talk about the importance of structured interviewing and the relevance of the questions you’re asking to the role.
A checklist for structured interviewing around skills:
- Is the question relevant to the skillset we require?
- Do you ask the same questions (roughly) of everyone?
- Do your questions delve deep enough into the candidate’s expertise to give you a clear indication of their knowledge?
Asking people about a uniquely identifying characteristic such as their gender, origin, orientation, or race should be irrelevant to the role you’re hiring for.
Sometimes you may unintentionally focus on this so be careful.
For example, I have been asked at least on a few occasions where I am from. For context I am from Bulgaria, which is in Eastern Europe, and in the UK there was a lot of negative sentiment for years around people from Eastern Europe.
That meant that a lot of times people were not able to hide their negative thoughts towards my origin (that being the mildest reaction).
The most severe comment I had was that I probably “Won’t make it in law”, as most of the women where I am from do manual work anyway so “Why law?”. This was said to me while I was a law student by a prominent lawyer I was having lunch with the discuss my career options.
Perhaps some of those people asking were genuinely curious, or perhaps the lawyer was challenging me to see what my motivations and drive were, but the main takeaway here is to focus on assessing the candidate for the position based on their skills, expertise, and knowledge and avoid questions that are too personal.
Biases can be easy to fall into and difficult to get out of, whether it be about ethnic origin or the fact that, in the face of so many brilliant women, brilliance is still seen as a male trait. If you’re interested in reducing your I suggest you read the article linked above!
Avoid the cultural fit trap
Down the years, I’ve seen the cultural question applied very myopically—basically a shortcut of “Can I see myself at a bar with this person?”. But we’re not hiring new friends or drinking buddies.
The culture fit you should be looking for is a set of values and behaviors towards work i.e. “Can I deliver a project with this person?”
Here’s another distinction that I always talk to my candidates and hiring managers about: you should not be looking for either introverts or extroverts—that is not going to indicate performance in any role (yes including sales, some of the best salespeople I’ve known are total introverts).
However, you should look for the actual behavior towards work that you need e.g. a team player. Both introverts and extroverts can be team players so you have to assess for that.
Lastly, make sure that candidates get interviewed by a diverse hiring team. Sometimes you may need to introduce someone cross-functional in your team if you have no one diverse who can support that.
This is important to a) make sure that any diverse candidate sees that they won’t be a tick box hire and b) catch out candidates who will not fit into a diverse environment.
I’ve successfully caught out candidates whose sexism couldn’t even be contained for the course of the interview process!
You read that right, a candidate once treated me like an idiot and then spoke incredibly condescendingly to the female interviewer who was going to be a peer.
Partnering with groups
While this may help you with sourcing, I want to make sure I highlight this separately as special groups of people like “Women in Tech” should not be just buckets of candidates for you.
You should be aiming to have a true partnership with these groups so that you show your true commitment—put your time and money where your mouth is!
These groups will have diverse talent that is highly engaged in their field, and in creating more diversity in their field, which means that they’re looking for companies where they can continue their work.
Personally, I connected with groups like Women Who Go and Queer Engineer (LGBTQ) and volunteered my time.
I used to review CVs and help with interview prep since I’m not a tech person, but make sure that your hiring managers and teams from each of the disciplines you are recruiting for (sales, tech, product, marketing, etc.) find a space where they can connect with diverse groups and give back to the community.
You may create many many processes and guardrails, but people’s unconscious biases can still kick in during an interview process.
I wrote a fairly lengthy article covering bias in hiring, but make sure that you speak with experts in the area who can run some bias training.
It may seem like another “HR seminar”, but well-run bias training can be eye-opening, unexpectedly engaging, and even cathartic. I was brought to tears in one!
Although unconscious bias has been a fairly popularised topic, you’d be surprised how many people still have not heard of it at all or don’t know how it manifests in reality.
Here I’d like to highlight a few more initiatives that can be an effective part of your recruiting diversity strategy.
- Apprenticeships. Probably one of the best ways to tackle underrepresentation based on ethnic background, socioeconomic status, and even gender. Also builds up your future candidate pool.
- Returnships. A great way by which parents, carers, or those who have had to take an extended career break can get back into a career!
- Remote/flexible work. A supposedly controversial policy, but there is no denying that companies with flexible work are more likely to find more diverse candidates (e.g. working mums and people with disabilities).
- Part-time/Job share. Think about whether your role can be offered part-time or to two people who can share it.
- Partnering with groups to offer jobs, work experience, and shadowing.
Increasing the diversity and representation of hires is not a one-and-done act or a box-ticking task. Don’t forget that post-hire and make sure that you help your new hires feel welcome.
While you should not be drawing attention to the fact that they may be different from the rest of the team in a certain factor (especially if they’re the first), it’s important to understand that they may require different accommodations.
You do not want to become the manager who struggles with the retention of diverse talent, so make sure you’re at least proactive in creating an inclusive working environment.
Speak to your team members about their experiences and, if you’re unsure about anything, try to get support from human resources.
I remember in my first job I was moved to a team of only guys. A few days later, I found out that they had a list ranking the bodies of female colleagues. They were so used to discussing the topic that they didn’t realise it was not appropriate at all, let alone with me around.
All of a sudden, one realised I was in the room and said “No worries Mariya, you are not on it, you are one of us”…. as if that was the problem.
I pulled them all into a room and gave them the lesson of a lifetime that no HR would have delivered (I wasn’t HR at the time).
An extreme example perhaps, but illustrative of the point.
Wait, no metrics or KPIs?
As you may have noticed, this article doesn’t talk about KPIs or metrics. This is because workforce diversity should be a task for everyone, not just a group that owns the target.
You should keep track and see if participation from underrepresented groups increases in your hiring process, but creating steep targets or worse a “diversity hiring team” can make people feel tokenised and encourage the hiring teams try to game the system just to tick a box.
Almost every female engineer I know has been reached out to by a “diversity sourcer”, and they actually refuse to reply on principle because they’re engineers first and shouldn’t be approached based solely on their gender.
It can seem complex when there are no strict KPIs to target yourself and your team, but, as mentioned at the start, a lot of diversity hiring rhetoric has been so insincere that people are losing faith in the notion. Making it a must-metric to hit a goal for the sake of hitting a goal will only exacerbate the problem.
This does not mean you should give up, but, if anything, demonstrate your dedication more and make sure that, as much as possible, people understand the need for their participation too. Discrimination still exists everywhere, so our work is not done!
I’d love to get your feedback or answer any questions here, so leave something in the comments or join the conversation in the People Managing People Community, a supportive community of HR and business leaders passionate about building organizations of the future.
Some further resources to help you hire the right talent for your org: