Inclusion Includes the Interview
Recruiting as a microcosm of why diversity initiatives fail and how to fix them
I recently participated in a panel discussion on racial diversity in footwear and fashion. The conversation was part of the FN CEO Summit where, though the event was focused on broader business topics, presenters made it clear that diversity and inclusion is at the top of the CEO agenda. A few themes emerged:
1. Companies are bought into the business case for increased diversity and are seeking to make their workforce more representative of their customers.
2. Actions taken to increase diversity vary widely across the industry and often focus on numbers rather than wholesale organizational change.
3. Many companies are struggling to move the needle at the senior management and executive levels.
The intention is there, yet results remain to be seen. What lies at the center of this disconnect? Inclusion.
Companies that are taking proactive steps to improve diversity numbers yet failing to effect meaningful change are likely operating with an inclusion deficit. One of the most prominent examples of this misfire occurs during the recruiting process. It goes like this:
Company requests to meet a diverse slate of candidates for an open position
Company puts candidates through the same selection process they’ve used for years
Company hires a non-diverse candidate
Putting diverse candidates through non-inclusive interview processes results in hiring the standard employee prototype regardless of intentions. Extrapolate this out across the employee life cycle, and it’s not hard to see why organizations are struggling to see results.
The recruitment process is a microcosm of the broader issue, and it’s a particularly critical moment for companies to get it right. If the actual hiring of a diverse candidate is desired, a thorough examination of the candidate experience needs to occur to ensure qualified people aren’t eliminated for the wrong reasons and they don’t opt out because they feel like they don’t belong.
Here are three critical areas to consider:
All people want to know if they’re going to belong in a new organization. This interest is heightened when candidates perceive that they are somehow different than the majority makeup of the workforce.
Much like retailers’ in-store experience, the goal should be to draw in diverse candidates and make them feel welcomed. Yet many companies unintentionally convey subtle cues that raise concerns. A few real-world examples my candidates have experienced include:
– One candidate waited in the reception area where Fox News was featured on the TV and wondered if being a member of the LGBTQ+ community would be an issue
– An African American candidate interviewed with a company touting a commitment to diversity but never saw nor met executives of color during the interview process
– A mother of two was excited to interview at a company that was lauded for its female leadership representation but noticed interviewers seemed off-put when asked about occasionally working from home
These subtle ‘belonging breakdowns’ may sound avoidable, but they happen often. To convey a sense of inclusion and acceptance, companies should seek feedback from people of different backgrounds who can help to point out nuances in the candidate experience that might be having a negative effect.
Fumbling the ball
An organization’s entire diversity and inclusion program can be undermined by the actions of a few. The interview process is a perfect example – no amount of policies or programs is going to speak louder than the conversations candidates have with the interviewers themselves.
Companies seeking to hire diverse professionals must equip employees to communicate with people from different walks of life. Some of this training is common sense – ask questions, don’t interrupt, don’t make assumptions. Other areas are more complex. If a company’s workforce lacks a certain demographic, it’s very possible that its employees lack exposure to that group as well.
Historical precedent has taught many candidates not to ask direct questions about diversity and belonging, so they may instead share subtle cues or wait for certain topics to come up. This can go a number of different directions. In my case, I always made sure to casually mention my husband early on in an interview. Responses varied based on the interviewer:
1. GOOD: Comfortable acknowledgment and continuing conversation
2. BAD: Visible discomfort or avoiding the topic
3. FUMBLE: Attempting to demonstrate support while using uninformed or offensive terminology (in my case, hearing ‘we support all alternative lifestyles and choices’ sends up a red flag as it sounds uninformed)
Diverse candidates regularly encounter the latter experiences because people ‘don’t know what they don’t know.’ Companies that are committed to hiring diverse talent should start by ensuring their front-line interviewers are prepared to ‘lean in’ and make authentic connections that do not reflect any unconscious or implicit bias.
Stacking the deck
There’s a magic number when it comes to the number of interviewers that evaluate a candidate. It’s five – research shows that selection committees comprised of more than five individuals start to work against hiring the best talent.
This outcome is multiplied when it comes to hiring diverse talent. Everyone has unconscious biases – and in some cases conscious biases – that compound with the addition of each individual interviewer. Appoint 10 sets of bias-holding decision-makers, and the candidates who are the most different will be the least likely to rise to the top. This stacks the deck in favor of familiar culture fits instead of expanding the culture to include something new.
A growing number of training programs exist to help companies build awareness around unconscious bias in the recruitment process. These programs can help to reduce exclusionary thinking, but they don’t eliminate bias entirely. Training should be incorporated into a broader diversity and inclusion strategy that seeks to embrace and accommodate differences across the organization.
Everybody realizes that retail has changed dramatically in the last decade. What we need to embrace now is that the people with the best solutions may look different than many of us currently ‘in the room where it happens’ today. Embedding inclusion into every touchpoint of the employee experience is critical to ensuring companies get to benefit from the innovation that comes from diversity. As the interview process shows, diversity without inclusion doesn’t work. They must go hand in hand.
Kyle Rudy is Senior Vice President of Kirk Palmer Associates, an executive search firm for leading fashion, footwear and retail companies. In this role he leads the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion efforts, helping clients recruit top executive talent with a range of backgrounds and experiences.
Kyle joined the firm following a thriving and robust HR career in specialty retailing and department stores including Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s Merchandising Group and Coach (now Tapestry). He applies uncanny assessment abilities and service-centric people skills to ascertain corporate culture, client needs and candidate capabilities. Kyle resides in New York with his husband, Darius, and their dog.