Diversity at the workplace has become a hot topic, not for sake of it but for its apparent benefits
The hiring pipeline is an easy scapegoat for why a workforce lacks diversity. You’ve probably heard the excuses. Maybe you’ve even made some of them yourself. I know I have.
- “I’d love to hire more women, but when I post a job, they don’t apply. They’re not interested.”
- “We don’t get many people of color applying for jobs.”
- “We’d hire them if we could find them.”
- “We post a job and only men apply.”
- “There just aren’t enough qualified women to do the job.”
The list goes on.
People who are members of underrepresented groups are often bewildered. Many eager and qualified candidates, working hard to get hired, are passed over. They feel unnoticed. Invisible even.
At the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Lab, researchers frequently hear comments like those in the list above. Each time, they’re reminded of the art of fishing: If you don’t catch a fish, you don’t blame the fish. You change your technique.
While the pipeline might be an easy excuse for why it’s hard to hire people from underrepresented groups, I hope you’re willing to think differently. Try to work to actively expand your pipeline and diversify your candidate pools. I’ll share some techniques you can use—whether you’re a leader, a hiring manager, or an individual contributor. Experienced applicants from marginalized groups are out there, and attracting them to your company is not the impossible task that pipeline-blamers think it is.
1. Diversify Your Network
Did you know most people have largely homogenous professional networks? For example, a report from the Kapor Center for Social Impact states that 75% of white people don’t have any people of color in their social network.
Homogeneous networks form because of the way we network. “Left to our own devices…we produce networks that are ‘just like me,’ convenience networks,” says Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School.
This makes sense because common interests tend to fuel networks. Let’s face it, we meet new people because of our shared hobbies or other interests. While I was working as vice president of engineering at Adobe, I joined the knitting club in our San Francisco office. Meeting over lunch on Wednesdays, we got to know each other while knitting baby blankets and hats for a local nonprofit. I loved it. But guess how many male colleagues I met via the knitting group? Zero. Sure, there are men who enjoy knitting, but none joined our group.
Building a professional network across lines of difference can prove difficult, especially when it involves getting outside our comfort zone. Outside of work, men are more likely to hang out with their male coworkers, perhaps grabbing a beer after work, playing poker or a round of golf, or going to a ball game together. By contrast, women tend to spend time with non-work friends outside of the office, such as book club members, fellow volunteers for a nonprofit, members of a religious organization, or, if we have kids, other parents from playgroups and school. For women who handle the lion’s share of housework and childcare, networking can be extra challenging. Home responsibilities can make it tough to pull off attending evening events or out-of-town conferences.
The result is that men network with men, women with women. Engineers network with other engineers, and marketers with other marketers. We want people who understand us, and instinctively know that people who are similar to us are likely to relate to our challenges and triumphs. It’s human nature.
Unfortunately, “just like me” networks can have a negative impact on creating diverse, inclusive workplaces. When it comes time to recruit for open roles and other opportunities, people naturally look to folks who are part of their professional networks, because they know and trust them. But when those networks are homogenous, this translates to favoring and advocating for folks like themselves. Depending on referrals is standard, and if those referrals come from a homogeneous network, it results in just hiring more homogeneity.
There’s an adage I love: Build your network before you need it. As software engineer Samantha Geitz shared on Twitter: “You have to build a network for diversity. This takes YEARS… I’ll tell you how you can start today. Follow 10 people on Twitter who aren’t white dudes. Chat with them every so often. Do it without an agenda.”
All of this begs the question: How will you start building a more diverse network? For ideas on how to do so, check out my book, Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces,
2. Vary Where You Post Openings
As a woman CEO, Kendall Tucker thought it would be easy to find strong woman candidates for openings at her company, Polis. But she was receiving 95% male applicants for all job postings.
To diversify her team, she employed a number of strategies. While much of what she did was familiar territory for me, she did point out one approach I hadn’t thought of before: “Post on a variety of job sites to get a diverse candidate pool.” It turns out that for positions at Polis, job postings on LinkedIn attracted up to 90 percent male engineering applicants, while AngelList, Indeed, Glassdoor, and Google attracted more balanced candidate pools.
You may attract a diversity of applicants through a single site. But why not cast a wider net? Depending on your hiring goals, you may want to leverage job sites with specific niches, such as people returning to work after a gap, older workers, and women who want to work remotely.
Think about conferences, meetups, alumni networks, and other resources—like professional and industry associations that cater to Black, Latinx, and other professionals in specific demographics.
If you’re the recruiter or hiring manager, it should be easy enough to make this happen. But even if you’re not—maybe you’re an individual contributor and your boss is hiring another team member—you can bring suggestions for specific places to post the open role. In some cases, you might be able to offer to do it yourself, especially if it’s a group or association you’re affiliated with.
3. Rethink Referrals
Relying on referrals can hurt efforts to diversify a candidate pool, but it can also help if you approach it intentionally.
No matter what your role or seniority level, you can commit to drawing on that network you’ve worked to build to recommend people from underrepresented groups for relevant job openings at your organization and beyond. If you’re recommending someone for a role at your company, use whatever formal referral system exists and, if you feel comfortable, put in a personal endorsement with the recruiter or hiring manager.
If you’re an executive, an HR leader, or a hiring manager, ask employees to recommend former colleagues from underrepresented groups. Encourage everyone, and I mean everyone—not just people who are from underrepresented groups themselves—to dig deep into their networks.
Pinterest employed this tactic and saw amazing results. Instead of just asking for “referrals”—which tend to be drawn from people’s naturally homogeneous networks—the company requested engineering referrals for women and candidates from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds specifically. They gathered these referrals during a six-week “challenge” period, a device for adding excitement and making the entire employee base feel invested in increasing diversity. During those six weeks, Pinterest saw a 24 percent increase in the number of women referred and 55 times as many people from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds.
Looking for another idea? Offer a referral bonus for candidates from underrepresented demographics, or a larger amount if you have a referral bonus program already in place. It can incentivize people who otherwise might feel too busy to reach out to their networks and make recommendations.
To encourage employees to continue to refer people from diverse backgrounds even after the sourcing push, check back in and thank them. Let them know how their referrals made out. Even if one or more of their referrals weren’t hired, let them know their effort was appreciated.
4. Think About Who’s Visible
Here’s a secret weapon I learned from one of my consulting clients, who asked me to identify ways to increase the number of women on their software engineering team. My first step was to review their current demographics, and I found that they were in better shape than most tech companies. When I asked the vice president of engineering how they had hired so many women, he smiled and said he knew exactly why. There was a manager on his staff who frequently spoke at tech conferences and local women-in-tech meetups. After each of her presentations, they would get an influx of resumes from women engineers. These job seekers must have been inspired by her talk. They saw someone like themselves being successful at the company and decided to apply.
If you’re an employee from an underrepresented group, know that the onus shouldn’t fall on you to do extra diversity work outside of your job description, and certainly not more than any other employee. But if you are passionate about bringing more diversity into your team, company, or field, consider speaking with your manager about ways you could become more visible with their support and your organization’s.
If you’re in a position of power, think about your employees from underrepresented groups, and take stock of who is already visible externally. Think of public speakers, podcasters, bloggers, or social media influencers. Are there actions you can take to support them being even more visible? Can they include a brief, “We’re hiring!” message or encourage job seekers to reach out to them?
Next, think about employees from underrepresented demographics who would be good ambassadors for your organization. Ask them if they want to do more speaking or writing externally, and set them up for success with coaching, classes, or other professional development opportunities.
If you decide to utilize this secret weapon, I have one word of caution. Any time you ask an employee to take on additional work that will benefit your organization, be sure to recognize and reward them for it. Being visible takes time, and it should be prioritized along with the rest of their responsibilities, not just heaped on top of an already full plate.
5. Understand the Journey
I regularly mentor women undergraduates who are considering careers in tech. One of my mentees, Maria, was a college senior from East Los Angeles, a densely populated, working-class neighborhood. She was the first in her family to go to college, and when I met her, she was studying computer science at an Ivy League school. She’s smart, driven, and imaginative, and I’m excited to see where her career will take her.
Want to know how Maria spent her summers during college? No tech internships for her. Instead, she worked at a children’s day camp near her home in L.A. She didn’t pursue internships during the time she spent on campus either. When I asked Maria why, she said, “I didn’t think I was qualified. Plus, I was too busy working my job at the school cafeteria to fit in interviews.” That on-campus job was Maria’s priority because she needed the income to make ends meet.
Does not having a tech internship make her less gifted as a programmer, or less able to grasp how to submit a pull request for a large code base? Of course not. But it may make her ever-so-slightly less appealing to recruiters at first glance. When hiring recent college grads, many people make huge assumptions about students who haven’t attended name-brand schools or pursued certain experiences, without ever asking why. Until you face a situation in which one of them says, “Well, I wanted to do that, but here’s why I couldn’t,” you might be unaware of this ingrained bias.
Instead of excluding someone because they didn’t hit some mark, work to understand their journey. And this doesn’t apply only when you’re personally hiring to fill an open role. It’s just as important to keep in mind when you’re networking, referring talented candidates for opportunities, mentoring folks coming up in the field behind you, and getting to know your colleagues.
This excerpt was adapted from The Better Allies Approach to Hiring. Copyright Karen Catlin 2020. It has been republished here with permission.