When we talk to organizations about improving their workplace culture and goals through diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), they often respond with what’s become a catchphrase: “But we only hire the best.” Well, of course. The hiring process is difficult and should obviously end with hiring the most capable person for the job. But the notion that DEI is somehow opposed to that is terrible on two levels, philosophical and practical.
The philosophical error is that by saying “we only hire the best” as a response to the clear need to diversify our spaces, one is essentially saying that only the candidates from the dominant culture typically interviewed are the best. White people are the best. Cisgender men are the best. Able-bodied people are the best. Straight people are the best. Ex cetera. All of this is as demonstrably untrue as it is offensive but it’s remarkable and frustrating that this gap still goes unnoticed by hiring managers.
The practical error is that hiring the best typically means choosing the best candidates from a limited hiring pool. As the Harvard Business Review reported, “The most popular channel for finding new hires is through employee referrals; up to 48% come from them, according to LinkedIn research. It seems like a cheap way to go…[but] they can lead to a homogeneous workforce, because the people we know tend to be like us.”
“Fun” fact: I was once directly told during an interview that the company only hires PLUs: people like us. The interviewer was a straight, white, cisgender male and everyone who worked there was white as well. Microsoft programmer Susan Warren identified this issue way back in 2004, calling the lack of women in IT “the classic chicken and egg problem” and noting that, despite her established talents, she was not among the thousands of Microsoft’s designated Most Valuable Professionals. “Does that mean I’m not up to snuff technically?” she asked, “I doubt it.”
Claiming merit, companies generally hire on the basis of work experience, specifically “Canadian work experience,” which makes sense on a surface level, but experience does not inherently equal skill. Also, a hiring process focusing on work experience or credentialism obviously favours the financially privileged who’ve had better access to higher education, internships, networking opportunities, and so on. Many otherwise qualified white people from poor backgrounds are held back by this but it’s talented people of colour, especially new immigrants, who bear the brunt.
A July 2022 McKinsey study found that of the Black people who make up 13 percent of frontline workers, “84 percent of Black employees indicated a desire to be promoted, but just 62 percent perceived an opportunity to advance.” On average, they earn 25 percent less than their white peers and so, McKinsey reports, “Black frontline employees report feeling included in the workplace less than any other racial group.” (I can’t tell you how many white people I have trained during my 20+ years as a middle manager in the PR industry who all went on to be VPs and Presidents and still call me to this day for advice and counsel. Yet I wasn’t offered the same opportunities.)
Fortunately, avenues for repair are plentiful, provided hiring managers look outside their typical referral networks. Catalyst has been a powerful force for women, Pride at Work Canada (and its American counterpart) advocates for better opportunities for 2SLGBTQI+ people, and the Black Career Network and POCAM are among several orgs trying to improve on those McKinsey numbers. Take a look around at any or all of these before you make your next hire so your company can truly be sure of finding the best.
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Let's Break Some Eggs! – Jefferson Darrell, Founder and CEO, Breakfast Culture™ Inc.