It’s time to challenge your talent thinking

The commercial benefits of a more diverse workforce are clear. So why do so many offices still look so homogenous? The truth is, hiring someone who has a different appearance, cultural background, age or experience doesn’t come naturally. Our unconscious biases are exactly that: unconscious. They stem from a natural need to make quick judgements, but they hold us back from embracing difference.

“It all starts with the hiring manager’s perception of what the ideal candidate ‘looks like’,” explains Natalie Goldman, CEO of FlexCareers. “Often they keep repeating situations: ‘the person who did this role before was like this and it worked.’ Of course, clearly it didn't – because they left.”

Goldman believes small businesses can change their habits and practices much more quickly than large enterprise – and they have even more to gain.

“At the end of the day, it’s about hiring the best person for the role. Diversity shouldn’t make that harder – if you find someone loyal and capable, isn’t that what you want?”

Goldman shares five ways to recruit new talent with diversity in mind.

1. Re-think those stereotypes

“People don’t realise their natural biases, but we still see them today in Australia,” says Goldman. “Women who become pregnant are seen as ‘unreliable’, or if the candidate has an Indian-sounding name they ‘won’t understand a customer call’. You name it, I’ve heard it.”

It takes conscious effort to flip that thinking. If you’re not sure where your biases lie, you can try an online test developed by Harvard researchers called Project Implicit.

2. Broaden your talent network

Instead of simply assuming the role requires 10 years experience and a specific industry qualification, ask yourself what capabilities are truly essential.

For former Google CEO and Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt, just two things predict employee success: curiosity and persistence. Everything else can be learned – which is why he says some of his best hires were former athletes or rocket scientists.1

For example, if you’re recruiting for a sales role you really need someone who can build authentic client relationships. Product features and benefits can be quickly learned, so consider looking outside your industry to sectors like retail or hospitality. Cognitive diversity is often found outside the constraints of narrow industry expertise.

3. Avoid subliminal barriers

The subtle language of a job ad can influence prospective candidates. “If you describe it as a ‘competitive fast-paced environment’, you’ll attract male candidates,”” explains Goldman. “But a ‘collaborative, outcomes-focused high-achieving environment will resonate more with women. Yet they’re effectively saying the same thing.”

She suggests pasting your job ad text into Gender Decoder to see if it’s male-leaning, female-leaning or neutral.

There are also more overt barriers. “Saying ‘lots of travel, no flexibility’ will definitely block certain groups of applicants, and minimise diversity,” says Goldman.

4. ‘Roll out the rug’ on blind CVs

When the Boston Symphony famously conducted blind auditions behind a screen to diversify it’s all-male orchestra, it found bias still crept in - because the sound of a woman’s heels crossing the stage unknowingly influenced the selection.

Goldman says you need to “put down a rug” to make a blind audition truly blind. In the case of blind CVs, that means knowing you’ll absorb some clues via information like career breaks.

“If someone takes six months or a year off in their 30s or 40s, it's a pretty good chance that’s parental leave,” explains Goldman. “The language women use to describe their abilities or experience can also provide subtle clues.”

FlexCareers’ platform is an example of ‘blind CV’ in action. “It’s an algorithm that matches capabilities and skills to a job description. It doesn't think about career breaks or gender,” says Goldman. 

5. Set targets, measure and reward

“I’m very pro-quotas, because I believe bias is so systemic that we have to throw as much as we can at the problem to get any shifts,” says Goldman. “Companies who set gender or pay gap quotas are achieving them. It forces people to think about it and work towards it.”

This needs to come from the top. “Are there things in your managers’ KPIs around hiring diversely? Words are great, but it needs to be reinforced with strong measures.”

If you provide referral incentives to staff for bringing in people they think might be a ‘good fit’ you might actually discourage diversity – attracting more people who think the same and share the same experiences. Consider adding ‘bonus’ payments for bringing in talent that also helps you reach your diversity goals.

Underpinning all these measures is your workplace culture. If it already encourages innovation and creativity, it’s likely to flow on to your hiring and recruitment practices. If not, it may be time to think about the bigger issue. And for Goldman, that starts with uncovering the unconscious biases within ourselves.

“Stereotypes start very young. To shift that paradigm, we have to be hyper-aware of what’s going on around us: the culture we live in and work within,” she concludes.

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1 Google/Alphabet's Eric Schmidt in Innovation = Managed Chaos, Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman podcast