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Hiring for diversity vs. skill sets: How do you find a balance?


Efforts to hire for diversity can be challenging. You, the business leader, know you need a workforce diverse in age, skill sets and culture for your business to thrive. But what if hiring managers balk, as in the case of one high-profile tech company?

How does a company get hiring managers comfortable with the idea of hiring outside their comfort zones? How far should business leaders go to encourage hiring managers to select a candidate who is not their first choice?

Analyze your workforce first

When the word “diversity” comes up, business leaders often think first of hiring people outside their usual gender, religion or race. But that’s only part of the diversity equation.

If your workforce is primarily made up of Baby Boomers, consider diversifying by adding younger people who can take over as your older workers retire. Similarly, if your start-up is staffed exclusively with recent college graduates, your company could probably benefit from the experience of older workers.

Take a look at your workforce. Could your team benefit from a female point of view (or two)? What sales leads are you missing because your team is made up of members of only one part of your community? Did your engineering team fail to identify a problem because they’re all from one college and didn’t learn about a particular technology?

By analyzing what’s missing and what you need, you widen your search to all potential candidates, not just the ones who fit an earlier prototype.

Talk openly about the benefits of diversity

The first step to encouraging hiring managers out of their comfort zones is to openly discuss the business needs for diversity and the type of diversity your company needs. Acknowledge that accepting staff members with different ideas may create stress sometimes, but also will strengthen your company’s ability to respond to customers.

The danger of too much homogeneity is that your teams aren’t as creative in their problem solving, according to researchers from the Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Their study found that “the mere presence of socially distinct newcomers and the social concerns their presence stimulates among old-timers motivates behavior that can convert effective pains into cognitive gains.” In other words, groups that were shaken up by new ideas became better problem solvers.

Encourage your hiring managers to consider their own biases. Does that delivery driver really need to be a man or could a woman do the job just as well? Are visible tattoos truly a problem?

Remind your hiring managers that their job is to identify the best person for the job, not to find a person who fits their preconceived notions of who should have the job.

If a hiring manager continually rejects a particular type of candidate, it’s time to dig deeper. It’s common for people to be unaware of their biases. It’s also common for hiring managers to assume candidates won’t be comfortable in a job rather than let candidates decide that for themselves.

You may need to remind your hiring managers that it’s illegal to make hiring decisions based on race, national origin, color, religion, age, disability, and in some states, sexual orientation. Charges of discriminatory hiring practices are costly, damage your company’s reputation, and can make it even harder to find qualified candidates.

Create objective standards

The first step to helping your managers balance diversity with cultural fit is to clearly define the job that needs to be filled. What hard and soft skills will the new employee need in order to be successful in that particular position?

When a hiring manager has difficulty filling a job, many times it’s because they’re trying to find a unicorn in the forest. For instance, an IT director may be looking for an all-in-one person with programming, database management and office administration experience. It may be time to acknowledge that such an employee doesn’t exist – or exist in the salary range you’re willing to pay.

Look at your job description. Do you really need a full-time person or would a part-time employee work just as well? Is the job description accurately targeted or too broad? Does the employee really need to lift 50 pounds or is that just written into all your job descriptions? Is a certain college degree required or is demonstrated coding skill enough?

For example, let’s say you decide that the job doesn’t require a full-time employee – a part-time employee would suffice. This can dramatically increase your talent options. Now, college students or people who want to slow down their work-life before full retirement become part of your candidate pool. And if younger and older candidates are underrepresented in your workforce, this may be a good opportunity for you to fill that gap.

Objective criteria helps you judge candidates on their merits rather than gut feelings or preconceived notions related to appearance or gender. Then, create a written list of questions that you will ask all candidates. Being able to compare answers to interview questions side-by-side helps keep things unbiased.

By evaluating the job description ahead of time, you’ll identify which skill set is most necessary and hire for that with an open mind.

To learn more about creating the right employee balance in your company, download our free magazine, Building a Better Team: How to Attract, Recruit and Hire Top Talent.