You Might Be Undermining Your Diversity Efforts Without Even Knowing It

Are you sending mixed signals to diverse job candidates? Here are the pitfalls to avoid.

You Might Be Undermining Your Diversity Efforts Without Even Knowing It
[Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

Whether the goal is to be more representative of the population at large, or to acknowledge the increasing body of evidence that diverse companies outperform those that are homogeneous, diversity is a hot topic at many companies. But the issue of diversity is complex–as layered as the business case to support it–and the time, effort, and resources being poured into diversity initiatives can be undermined by oversights or missteps.


It’s a common issue, says Audra Jenkins, senior director of diversity and compliance at human resources consulting firm Randstad Sourceright. Sometimes, companies aren’t even clear on what they’re overlooking or doing wrong. Sociologists recently revealed how more traditional approaches to diversify have failed to attract and retain more women and people of color. The good news is that when leaders become aware of the issues, they can fix them. Here are six areas to review.

Ignoring Channels To Diversity

If you’re not actively cultivating connections to varied organizations and prospective hires, you’re probably not attracting the richest possible pool of candidates, says David Livermore, PhD, who heads the Cultural Intelligence Center, a business consultancy that focuses on culture, and author of Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation Through Diversity. Reaching out to groups that can connect you to prospective employees who identify as various races and ethnicities, religions, ages, genders, sexual orientations, etc., can help you attract candidates of various viewpoints and life experiences.

Groups, institutions, universities, and organizations that represent the people you’d like to see in your candidate pool should be notified when your company has openings, Livermore suggests. Make it clear in your job advertising and to your recruiters that you welcome diverse candidates. When you actively cultivate varied candidates, you begin to gain a reputation as a company that values diversity, Livermore says.

Disconnecting From Business Goals

At commercial insurance company Zurich North America, Anuradha Hebbar, head of diversity and inclusion, says that companies need to connect their efforts to overall business goals, or their efforts to cultivate a more diverse workforce will likely fail. She says they need to be clear about how diversity will make the company stronger and more competitive. When organizations can tie diversity and inclusion to goals and positive outcomes, there is typically a stronger commitment to making them work.

Ensuring Your Processes Are Unbiased

Livermore says that companies may have inadvertent bias in their ads or interview questions. He says one useful tool highlights whether a job posting is biased toward a particular gender, based on research based on the language it uses.

Use a consistent set of questions with each candidate after they’ve been vetted by a diverse internal team, he says. “Insist on everyone holding off on making commentary about the candidates before you do a thorough process, otherwise the dominant cultures typically shape [who gets hired],” he says.


Failing To Tap Internal Resources

Your current employees can be an important channel to cultivating greater diversity and the benefits it can bestow, Jenkins says. Ask for feedback on products, services, and culture. Gather feedback and integrate reasonable suggestions. When you make employees feel valued, they’re more likely to share their opinions.

Zurich, like AT&T and other large organizations, has employee resource groups (ERGs) for women leaders, millennials, and other groups of employees. By tapping the insights of these groups, she says the company can capture viewpoints from different life experiences. Hebbar, who previously worked with McDonald’s, says when the company’s coffee sales were slumping, the African-American ERG came up with the idea for mocha coffee, which actually grew market share for the company, she says.

Overlooking Pathways To Promotion

While some companies focus resources on recruiting diverse candidates, fewer pay attention to ensuring that their diversity efforts continue through the development process, Jenkins says. Despite a $300 million investment in diversity, Intel fell short on its ability to retain the diverse talent it added to its ranks.

Devoting resources to mentoring and training programs, and ensuring that diverse candidates are developed and promoted from within are signals that the company cares about diversity. Part of this effort includes devoting a budget to diversity efforts and ensuring that your organization is adequately investing in the people it wants to develop, she says. “When you have allocation of resources and financial resources, it correlates to your level of commitment to diversity. It’s the difference between lip service and action,” she says.

Researchers from Stanford and Tulane found that referrals that came from company insiders who mentored or trained African-American employees boosted their chances of getting a promotion.

Ignoring Inclusion

Inclusive cultures are necessary for diversity initiatives to thrive, says Vernon Wall, a cofounding faculty member of the Social Justice Training Institute, which helps develop diversity trainers and practitioners. If inclusion is an element of your culture, it creates an environment where different people feel welcome and valued. When companies recruit diverse candidates and pay no attention to ensuring the workplace welcomes them, those candidates won’t contribute to the best of their ability, he says.


“You have to listen to employees and not get defensive when you get feedback you don’t like,” he says. Remember that you’re asking for their input to make the environment better for everyone.

Jenkins also recommends assessing your organization’s cultural-competence level, working with a third party, if necessary. Doing so can help build trust because employees see that you’re interested in understanding what you don’t know, she says.

“Employees tend to be more honest in that assessment, because it’s not asking the employee their views on diversity,” she points out. “It’s asking employees’ opinion about the organization’s view on the diversity, so it takes the pressure off of them feeling like they have to respond in a certain way,” she says.

Most of all, it’s critical that companies have top-down leadership on diversity, Livermore adds. If you’re working on diversity without the support of leadership, he says, you’re not going to get the resources or commitment you need to truly make a difference.


About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books