Workplace Diversity Starts with the Candidate Pool

Hundreds of articles have been written about the value that diversity and gender balance can bring to the workplace—and hundreds more have been written about the pitfalls that can be avoided by having an inclusive and diverse workplace. But how do you achieve it? This article is the first in our series answering that question and offering practical tips and tactics to those employers who have already decided that diversity and gender balance are objectives worth pursuing.

Let’s start with a look at the candidate pool. First, think of the recruiting process in the context of a sales process. Envision a typical sales funnel, but replace the steps in the process with the steps in the recruiting process.

Potential candidates enter the top of the funnel from a variety of sources, including:

  • Referrals
  • Traditional job ads in print and online job boards
  • LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media
  • Corporate presence at career fairs and the corporate website, etc.

Candidates in the pool proceed through the process or are passed over, until a select few emerge from the bottom of the funnel as hires.

Candidate Pool Bias

One of the biggest challenges companies face when they set out to increase diversity is receiving a preponderance of applicants who reflect their current staffing mix, leaving them with too few applicants representing the desired demographic.

No employer wants to hire someone just because they represent a particular demographic. Employers striving for a more diverse workplace want to hire great employees who also reflect diversity. But that’s very hard to do if your candidate pool is homogenous.

Here are a few practical tips for getting a diverse mix of applicants at the top of your funnel so that your selection process naturally results in more diverse hires.

Diversify Employee Referrals: When asking current employees for referrals, specify the demographic you’re looking to add to the team and ask them to focus on referring candidates who reflect it (as an aside, you are more likely to receive referrals from employees if you provide specific details about target candidates.) You’ll also find that employees are often more comfortable referring people who are most like themselves, so asking for referrals from those on staff who fit the demographic you wish to bolster is also effective.

Align External Sources: Examine all applicant sources to identify and eliminate bias. For example, a technology company striving to improve gender balance on the software development team may struggle to do so because many common sources feeding into the candidate pool (e.g.GitHub, Guru and LinkedIn), have a male skew, which guarantees the candidate pool will too. A more appropriate source of candidates for this company would be through organizations and associations of female programmers.

Align Recruiting Materials: Examine your recruiting materials (ads, videos, etc.) for content that demonstrates a bias toward one particular demographic. Modify these materials to reflect the demographic you want to hire.

Reduce Rolodex Bias: When a vacancy is critical, employers and recruiters may reach out to their personal networks. When asked, the referrer (mentally or physically), flips through a “rolodex” of contacts and shares any appropriate names. Although today’s typical rolodex is an electronic contact list, it will still reflect a built-in bias based on where the referrer went to school, the associations he participates in and the people he has maintained contact with. One way to reduce rolodex bias is to approach only those contacts who can appreciate the sensitivity of the challenge you are facing and then be specific about what you are looking for: excellent candidates who reflect a specific demographic.

Separate Responsibility: As an organization, define the demographic you are seeking to balance and implement the necessary changes to ensure an appropriately diverse candidate pool. Keep this function separate from the screening and selection process. The person who conducts initial candidate screening (whether an external recruiter or someone on staff), can then focus purely on the merit of each applicant, independent of any diversity targets. This allows only the best candidates to move forward in the selection process, while the existence of a diverse candidate pool ensures that the target demographic is represented among those selected.

Fish Where the Fish Are

Anyone responsible for recruiting has heard the phrase “fish where the fish are.” In recent years, I’ve seen it used most often in reference to the use of social media for recruiting. What’s seldom addressed is the fact that some pools have only one kind of fish. Perhaps it’s time to modify both the phrase and our practices and begin to “fish where the types of fish we want to catch are.”  The best way to achieve workplace diversity and maintain consistent quality hires is to start with a diverse candidate pool.

Watch for part two of this series, which looks at interviewing strategies that support workplace diversity.


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