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5 things you’re getting wrong in setting diversity goals

Diversity is good for business, but where do you start? How do you set goals that feel tangible and achievable, yet impactful?

5 things you’re getting wrong in setting diversity goals
[Photo: Mathisa_s/iStock]

Diversity is worth the investment. It’s not just something that businesses need to be concerned about from an optical or ethical standpoint. It’s also important for the bottom line: Recent studies have shown that companies that have more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenue.

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But once the need for diversity becomes a given, companies have the immense challenge of actually creating a representative organization through hiring and inclusion. This starts with setting meaningful diversity goals, and while that can feel like an overwhelming undertaking for any company, it doesn’t have to be. If companies are thoughtful and intentional about diversity and inclusion from the start, in addition to building better businesses, they are more likely to avoid missteps around their workforce diversity efforts.

So where do you start? How do you set goals that feel tangible and achievable, yet impactful? If you run a startup and are focused on growing quickly, how do you still begin to look outside of your established network to build your team? If you run a large company, how do you reverse years or even decades of underrepresentation and institutionalized hiring practices?

Regardless of the unique diversity challenges that companies face at every stage, it always starts with setting goals that are predicated on the understanding that, much like R&D, investing in diversity today may not result in immediate measurable returns, but is sure to yield long-term results. Like innovation, making progress on diversity takes time. Keeping this in mind can help companies avoid these five common pitfalls of diversity goal setting:

1. Failing to be specific when diagnosing a lack of “diverse” representation

When setting out to build more representative workforces, companies often fail to set themselves up for success because they use a broad definition of diversity that makes it difficult for them to truly drive results. Companies need to understand and identify who–as in, specifically which groups–are underrepresented or under-included within the organization in the first place. Though it may initially feel like an uncomfortable conversation to have, it is okay (encouraged, even!) to be very specific about what type of diversity is a priority for your organization.

Look at each level (early, mid-career, senior level) and be precise about which groups (and the corresponding backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, and ideas) are lacking, keeping in mind that some existence of diversity is not an indicator of an entire level or organization being fully diverse. Then craft your goals accordingly. For example, by starting with a statement like, “This year, we would like to increase representation of black and Latinx mid-level professionals,” a company is better able to develop a recruiting plan.

Often, companies choose the easier work of either focusing on the diverse populations that are already fairly well represented within their ranks, or, when crafting new initiatives, they focus on pipeline building for the groups they know will be easiest to reach. While this work is certainly important, it is only one part of an organization’s diversity journey. Without rolling sleeves up to begin the harder work of identifying and engaging with the least represented groups within a specific company, underrepresentation will remain a dire challenge.

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2. Choosing benchmarks that only reinforce the status quo

Companies often choose benchmarks for success by comparing their current stats to a national or industry average that is lacking. This can be a dangerous move without the correct context. For example, a tech company having more representation than most tech companies is not something to write home about when there are half as many blacks and Hispanics in tech as in the rest of the private sector. The U.S. “skilled labor” market is another data pool that is often misused for benchmark setting. At face value, it feels broad and all-encompassing, a solid constant and point of comparison. But a company striving to match the representation of these underrepresented groups within the U.S. skilled labor market ignores the historical inequality and institutional roadblocks that have left people of color out of this labor market to begin with. When companies define success against warped data, they reinforce the status quo.

Instead, set benchmarks that reflect where we should be and where the country is headed. Take into consideration that by 2040, the majority of the U.S. workforce will be made up of ethnically diverse professionals, and the post-millennial generation is on track to be the most diverse and best-educated yet, with black and Latinx students enrolled in higher education at much greater rates than previous generations. Factor this in as your company seeks out talent from different backgrounds, and your company will be better prepared for the future. To make strides now, consider working with organizations striving to change the status quo to ensure people of color have the access to opportunity needed to find a seat at the table. Taking this extra step is not only a good thing to do, but it also signals to prospective candidates that you care deeply about diversity and understand its historical complexities.

3. Setting oversimplified goals that don’t facilitate lasting change

Companies often set simple goals that focus on hiring a certain number of people of color or reaching set percentage increases over a specific period of time. But often, immediately assigning a number to the problem is an oversimplification that rarely leads companies toward their intended result. Instead of starting out by focusing on getting a certain number of hires, which may not facilitate lasting change, at Jopwell, we push our partners to first focus on process and setting goals that zero in on changing hiring infrastructure.

It’s the old adage of walk before you run. Before talking about making hires, talk about applicant funnels, interview conversion rates and company blindspots. Ask yourself a few key questions. Are diverse candidates advancing through the interview process? Are resumes making it past the first round? Does the company’s approach to evaluating candidates exclude people who have relevant and transferable skills but didn’t previously work at a shortlist of companies? Employers will not be able to increase representation if they only seek to hire candidates from highly similar companies that are also not representative–this results in diversity hiring being treated as a zero-sum game. This common practice is one of the core reasons why companies disproportionately fail to identify and advance people of color through the interview process.

Addressing these complexities and needed structural changes must be baked into goal setting. Set goals that actually help change the way your organization is operating before you worry about measuring numbers. Aim to broaden your applicant pool, rethink job qualifications, and educate hiring managers. The needle-moving increases in hires will be the byproduct of achieving these changes. Set goals of all varieties (short-, mid- and long-term) and be sure to continuously contextualize these steps within a broader view of what every company should be playing toward: actually representing the world we live in.

4. Trying to “solve” diversity challenges overnight

Companies commonly come to us and say, “We’re looking to solve all our diversity issues this year.” While it’s great they are taking an ambitious approach, this is often wishful and misguided thinking. Setting aggressive timelines to achieve superficial manifestations of important goals is short-sighted and ultimately sets companies up for disappointment.

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Short-termism stems from a few common misunderstandings. First, companies that have never addressed diversity within their organization underestimate the scale of the issue and what’s needed to make a real impact. It always takes time to find the right person for a job and this requires patience. Second, executives are used to focusing on driving results now–this quarter’s earnings, this year’s stock performance–not later. But this approach doesn’t translate when it comes to changing a culture of hiring, representation, and inclusion. On top of all this, CEOs and executive teams are often pressured by investors, board members, and a media spotlight to make major, celebration-worthy changes today, on their watch.

The truth is that there is no quick fix. Companies do not change overnight, and diversity challenges cannot be approached as if they do. Remember that creating a representative organization takes time, and instead of focusing on quick successes, hold your company accountable to tackling the challenging, but ultimately more impactful task of changing the infrastructure and culture that is holding the organization back.

5. Celebrating and communicating success without acknowledging the work ahead

Companies often conflate short-term goals with long-term goals by celebrating key early wins, like achieving a hiring benchmark or making a diverse addition to the board, as a momentous occasion instead of acknowledging it for what it is–an important step on the way to the long-term goal of being fully representative. Short-term diversity goals should always ladder back up to the long-term goal of full representation and inclusion, and must be presented that way. When talking about diversity progress publicly–an important part of marketing your organization to prospective candidates of color–always be sure to contextualize and acknowledge where progress still needs to happen. Otherwise, it can be misperceived both internally and externally as an excuse to be complacent rather than a time to double down on diversity and inclusion efforts.

When companies prematurely celebrate wins on the diversity front, it allows them to check a box and revel in a false sense of “mission accomplished.” Unearned self-praise can alienate professionals of color who see it as a reminder that actual progress has not taken place. So while reaching and publicly celebrating a hiring goal is exciting to companies, it can actually breed frustration among the very professionals they are hoping to better represent. To counter this, we encourage companies to internally celebrate meaningful wins to keep teams motivated, rather than publicly broadcasting success as absolute.

Joining the public conversation around diversity in the workplace can be a positive way to recruit and reach new communities. But that media conversation needs to be thoughtful and focused on the steps your organization is taking toward realizing absolute representation. It also needs to include voices of color who can speak to their real experiences and take the discussion out of the vacuum that’s often formed.


Ryan Williams is the president and co-founder of Jopwell, a career advancement platform and end-to-end solution for companies committed to diversity and inclusion. Jopwell helps companies authentically engage and connect with Black, Latinx and Native American candidates

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