“We need to hire more [demographic].”
Most people think of that diversity consulting inquiry (which I’ve received more than once) as a forehead-smacking moment, but to me it’s an invitation for a very good discussion with my clients. They’re not nearly as deluded or demographist as many people think.
They’re just keeping up with the times.
Look around the internet, and you will see reams of numbers citing demographic percentages, workforce compositions, and whether those numbers are “good enough.” We see commitments to diversity that involve “getting the numbers up to X percent by Y date,” that, in other contexts, we called “quotas.” Companies are getting lauded for meeting the numbers, as if they tell the whole story, and businesses are responding by asking consultants like me to help them make the numbers. Like any other company, they are trying to do what their market demands…which is precisely the problem.
One of the keys to success in business is knowing not what your customers say they want, but what your customers actually need. In the case of diversity, what people want is to see numbers that accurately reflect their idea of demographic parity.
The actual diversity need, however, is a maximized talent pool.
It’s not just your customers that need you to have top talent; it’s your business that needs it. But, focusing on the numbers generally causes people to game the system and focus more on demographics than they do on talent, with the result of covert comments that suggest that certain people were hired/promoted to make demographic numbers. Unfortunately, when a company is trying to hit demographic numbers, that statement is likely to seem true in at least one case, and this regrettably gets far more broadly applied than the actual numbers would show. Worse, it can signal to some groups of people that they have a lower likelihood of promotion if they are the wrong demographic, which is, not-so-ironically, a creation of the very problem that the company was trying to solve in the first place!
The problem with the numbers
Looking around your company and seeing the same demographic is almost always a bad sign. It generally freaks HR managers right to the core that the company has a rampant case of demographism and there’s going to be a lawsuit, bad PR, and lost business. In the long run, however, that’s the least of the company’s worries.
Start with the bigger problem: uniform demographics signal to the whole world that your company doesn’t care about talent. If we start with the more-than-reasonable-but-as-yet-unproven assumption that raw talent is evenly distributed across demographics (and there’s no reason to believe otherwise), a uniform demographic means that you probably do not have the best talent out there. I say “probably” because there are any number of reasons for a company’s demographic numbers, and there is absolutely no way to explain the reasons behind a firm’s demographic composition from the numbers alone.
When I teach statistics, I have my students repeat this over and over: “Correlation is not causation. A what is not a why.” These are the two pairs of concepts that are most frequently conflated when numbers are involved.
The latter, conflating a “what” with a “why,” is one of the most common errors that I see when dealing with diversity (and science). When the numbers are off, that’s all you know! It’s rather like taking your temperature and using that to determine if you’re sick. If you don’t have a fever, that doesn’t mean you aren’t sick, and, analogously, having good diversity numbers doesn’t mean you have no demographic biases or inclusion problems. If you do have a fever, however, that gives you zero information about what’s causing the fever, even though it means you are almost certainly (but not always!) sick.
Checking your diversity numbers is taking your company’s temperature
Start with a lack of fever — if you check your demographics and find a diverse array of people that fits pretty well with composition of the local population, you have a good start. The question is, how did you get that way? Were you just gaming the numbers and hiring/promoting by demographic (in which case you still have a major problem that you’re keeping hidden like a cancer)? Or, were you seeking talent all over the place, nurturing it and promoting it, making people feel welcome and respected and included and valued, and educating people and building reconciliation when (not “if”) mistakes were made? If you’re doing the latter, you have an awesome company, and the best advice I can give you is to keep a pulse on your company to maintain the health of your talent.
If your diversity numbers are off, however, the first thing to do is not to panic. The second is to call your [HR] doctor. As with finding out you have a fever, you’re going to need an expert to come in, diagnose the problem by checking your other symptoms and running a bunch of tests, and then give you a prescription that may take some time to restore your health. Saying that a company’s problem is “demographism” is a lot like saying someone is “sick” — it’s an overstatement of the obvious with no clear indicator of the root of the problem.
Companies can have demographism in covert ways and/or overt ones, it can be in specific areas or pervasive, gross and/or subtle, implicit and/or explicit, due to talent intake and/or talent processing, in isolated incidents/groups or systematic, in specific contexts and/or broad, and so many other possibilities. Consultants who specialize in diversity know how to analyze your company and run tests to identify where the problems are, and can then work with your firm to create a customized treatment plan that will restore the health of your talent pool. It’s also important to remember that, with any health regimen, results often take time to appear, and recovery from a major injury like insufficient diversity can take a long time to repair and heal, even after you’re on the right track.
Like the organic compound Vitamin D, diversity makes the company’s bones strong and protects against cancers like groupthink, incivility, cluelessness, and staleness. It keeps the company lively and promotes healthy aging and, best of all, it’s easy to get. Check your Vitamin D levels soon and call an HR doctor to make sure your company has the talent strength it needs for a profitable future.