How to Bring in Diverse Talent
‘If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got.’ This saying could easily be printed on a poster and hung in every boardroom. If companies want to truly and permanently increase diversity within their organizations, they have to abandon existing patterns and radically transform their purpose, culture, leadership, recruitment and selection policies and communications. This is not easy, but it is very rewarding. It has been proven that diversity and inclusion – two concepts that are inextricably linked – result in better decision-making because different perspectives have been considered. A diverse organization also more faithfully reflects society: Clients and other stakeholders. Companies with successful D&I policies have another advantage in the tight labor market: They appeal to broader groups of potential employees who often prove to be more committed. This can help increase the organization's productivity whereby it may become possible to reduce the number of positions which are vacant anyway. Doing more with fewer people by being open to other people.
Diversity is about more than just the male/female ratio. It also concerns ethnicity, age, LGBTIQA+ and background. Whatever boxes people tick, they should be given equal opportunities and be able to feel at home within an organization. That requires an inclusive culture that embraces differences. It is not just about visible cultural elements such as logo, corporate style and communications – these are only the tip of the iceberg. Cultural and behavioral change has to focus on what is under the surface: Principles and beliefs, the associated emotions, the language they speak, or ‘the smell of the place’, as culture guru Sumantra Ghoshal so beautifully phrased it.
A male-dominated culture
Those underlying norms and values often unconsciously manifest themselves in internal and external language. In organizations with a male-dominated culture, words such as ‘target setting,’ ‘competition’ and ‘customer winning’ are generally used more commonly than more feminine concepts such as ‘collaboration,’ ‘relationship’ and ‘communication’. This word choice also seeps into recruitment: It may say m/f in an organization’s recruitment ads, but the job description and requirements still tend to implicitly target men. They therefore appeal less to women, making them less likely to apply. And when they do, they are more likely to leave the organization early because the culture is not inclusive.
Example: With the influx of fresh talent at consulting firms, the male/female ratio is often still 50/50, but throughout their steep career paths, increasing numbers of women drop out due to the masculine culture. Among partners, we still see less than 30% women versus more than 70% men. The hidden codes also affect the recruitment and retention of people from multicultural backgrounds. Take professional service providers in the Randstad as an example: Amsterdam is a multicultural melting pot, but this is not reflected in the workforce of the average office in the Zuidas district. Anyone consulting the Cultural Diversity Barometer of the Central Bureau of Statistics can directly compare the ethnic-cultural diversity of the workforce with the regional context.
Dancing in the ballroom
Companies therefore need to create a culture shift if they want to recruit and retain diverse talent. How do you create an inclusive culture so that when people enter the ballroom, they are also allowed to dance? First of all: D&I starts at the top, with exemplary behavior. If the Supervisory Board and Board of Directors believe in it and put the diversity drive into practice among their own team, it can cascade like a waterfall to the rest of the organization. A critical mass of 25% is crucial here: Only when that critical mass is reached will teams really listen to other voices, differing opinions and varying perspectives. Only then can organizations introduce their employees to a more inclusive culture, which makes or breaks the success of a diversity policy. First and foremost, business leaders have to look under the surface. How can we adjust our purpose, principles and beliefs and then communicate them internally and externally so that we appeal to a more diverse group of people?
Sustainability as a diversity driver
ElipsLife has also undergone a cultural shift in recent years. Ten years ago, we were still a startup. Everything was about sales, growth, and more growth. The commercial organization consisted exclusively of men – we could not get women into the Sales and Marketing teams. Now we are a grown-up: there is less emphasis on growth and more emphasis on retaining existing customers, less emphasis on competition and more emphasis on internal and external collaboration. Gradually, we also saw the diversity figures improve: The male/female ratio is now 50/50.
Another example is carpet manufacturer Interface, which transformed itself from an environmentally polluting producer to a net-positive, CO2-neutral company. The company recently received an open application from a cum laude graduate econometrician with a multicultural background, who could have worked anywhere but deliberately selected an employer with an active sustainability policy: “I specifically want to come and work for you because I believe in and want to contribute to your social purpose.” Organizations attract more diverse talent if they know how to appeal to more people with their particular values.
A clear purpose translated into widely recognized values therefore forms the core of a successful diversity policy. That does not change the fact that companies also have to recruit in a more targeted way. Meanwhile, the good news is that there are now more women on Supervisory Boards, helped by the introduction of the statutory quota. However, we still have a long way to go as the number of female directors is only rising slowly. Furthermore, while organizations have been able to gain experience in promoting gender diversity in recent years, this is hardly the case for the next challenge: Multicultural diversity. Nevertheless, a number of best practices can be identified in this area as well. Look beyond the traditional recruitment and selection channels, otherwise you will always get what you always got: White male candidates from privileged backgrounds. For example, as part of your recruitment strategy you could put a stronger focus on social media to appeal to multicultural talent. On Instagram, you can do targeted recruiting with the mindset that your ad will only be seen by certain target groups in the labor market. In doing so, focus on how you describe your organization, its mission, the skills required and the position. If you use algorithms, be alert to hidden biases that exclude people based on their gender or origin. Furthermore, you can ask employees from diverse backgrounds to use their networks to advertise job postings. This can increase diversity in the organization.
Can everyone talk about soccer, cars or investments?
Once that diverse talent has been recruited, the organization is still not there yet. That is just the beginning! The decision-making process is a lot easier and faster in homogeneous teams. In heterogeneous teams, you first have to align all the different opinions. Team building can also be more difficult if people do not have the same frame of reference. Cohesion in diverse teams is hard work and requires more from the manager and individual team members during meetings and gatherings as well as informally over coffee before the meeting and drinks after. Can everyone talk about soccer, cars or investments, or do you make a conscious effort to avoid conversation topics that only interest a small group?
The white male as an endangered species
Another obstacle is resistance from the group that was traditionally the most powerful and now has to share or even relinquish that power. Today, white males often feel they are at a disadvantage because women and people with multicultural backgrounds are given preference during recruitment and promotion. But as long as women and people with multicultural backgrounds are still half as likely to be invited for a job interview, there is little reason to consider the white male an endangered species. On the contrary, there is every reason to reconsider the purpose and values of the organization and change recruitment and selection processes, team building, team management and organizational culture. So, hang up that poster in the boardroom – that wisdom will probably still be relevant for years to come.
This essay was published in Management Scope 09 2022.