Diversity in Hiring Doesn’t Start With Hiring

This article is part of the guide Finding the Right Talent in the Edtech World.

The business case for building a diverse workforce is growing stronger every day. Diversity is an important aspect of any organization. In a 2018 research study, McKinsey found that the top quartile of gender-diverse companies were 21 percent more likely to experience above average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile. The Boston Consulting Group found that companies with a Blau Index (a measure of diversity) above the median experienced “38% more of their revenues, on average, from innovative products and services when compared to those companies below the median.” Diversity has also been linked with higher employee retention. Of course, there’s also a strong ethical argument to be made for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Even so, many organizations in education and beyond still struggle with diversity even while looking explicitly to hire diverse candidates. To learn more about what steps educational organizations can take to improve diversity, we sat down with Allison Wyatt, co-founder of Edgility Consulting, a leading executive search and talent consulting firm in the education space. She shared her top tips for how organizations can improve the diversity in their hiring.

1. Start Now and Don’t Stop

If you’re starting to look at diversity only when you need to fill a position, you’ll likely find it very difficult to achieve, Wyatt points out. “Start now,” she suggests, and start by looking inside your organization. Diversity, equity and inclusion aren’t short-term projects. Instead, they’re constant processes of improvement and self-reflection. Wyatt suggests the metaphor of technology. Mastering a single technology may give you an edge for a time, but to stop there is to fall behind. You have to continually improve and adapt to new technologies. The same is true when it comes to DEI; it’s got to be something that your organization is always working on improving.

Organizations should also always think about cultivating their network of talented candidates. “The vast majority of our finalists and the vast majority of our placed candidates are people that we found [first and then] and made aware of an opportunity.” That takes work, suggests Wyatt.

Wyatt also suggests forming strategic partnerships with organizations to help build your network with particular demographics. “There are a lot of pipeline organizations out there that organizations can form partnerships with to cultivate talent over time,” she observes. Think of Management Leadership for Tomorrow, the RELAY Graduate School of EducationEducation Pioneers. Fellowship programs and leadership development programs are rich talent pools, Fellows in leadership development programs may be seeking new roles after their year-long programs, says Wyatt.

Consider, too, modeling your search after other organizations that recruit at scale and prioritize diversity. You’re not looking to poach candidates from them but associating with them can help expand your talent pool–and signal that you’re committed to developing a diverse workforce. “Organizations who do this well,” says Wyatt, “start to build relationships with individuals before a job opening arises. If you’re trying to figure out how to build a diverse team, you need to think about your strategy for how to make your organization more diverse before the job position opens.”

2. Don’t Blame The Pool

One stumbling block many organizations face is building a pool of diverse applicants, even when the will to hire a diverse staff is there. “I hear people make comments such as ‘How do you build a pool of diverse candidates?’ almost as if that should be the challenging part. And it’s not,” Wyatt notes. “The reality is there’s an abundance of talented leaders from all different backgrounds and those leaders have very different experiences in the selection process and some encounter greater barriers than others. What we’ve found is that when we start to eliminate those barriers, we have a much higher percentage of placements for people of color because we’re leveling the playing field in the selection process. That’s where we focus. We don’t have to do a lot of gymnastics to build a diverse pool.”

So why do organizations seem to focus on the pool rather than the process? Wyatt posits two reasons. “First of all, that’s looking externally and not internally. People are attracted to the concept that ‘There’s a shortage, it’s not my fault’ versus ‘Wow, there are some biases in my organization that are serving as barriers. It’s a very hard thing to unpack particularly in a sector that’s progressive where people pride themselves on being inclusive and open-minded. It’s really a personal thing.”

This recognition may be surprisingly tough for education-related organizations, she notes because Wyatt says she’s observed that “the human capital functions are very underdeveloped” in the education space. “In a hundred-person organization in the education/non-profit space, you’ll find a lot fewer employees on the HR team than you would find in a hundred-person private sector company,” Wyatt notes. What’s become good talent sourcing practices in other fields is rare in education, she says. “People are relying too much on job postings, on their own network, on employee referrals, and not enough on proactive sourcing strategies.”

3. It Ain’t Cheap

There’s a definite correlation between organizations that invest in their employees and their human capital teams generally and those that excel when it comes to diversity, says Wyatt. The education sector as a whole tends to invest less in human capital teams than other sectors do, often resulting in teams that lack the resources to effectively surmount existing obstacles to diversity. Focus on investing in your organization’s people, she suggests, and you’ll be better set up to cultivate diverse and inclusive teams. “If you’re not developing talent generally, how are you going to develop leaders of color?”. Organizations need to build a foundation of strong talent practices in general, and then scaffold specific DEI initiatives on top of that in order to really make progress.

By the same token, you’ll want to invest in the tools that support your hiring team. “There needs to be a mind shift in what it takes to have a diverse organization. You can’t do it on the cheap,” she says. There are many great systems and tech platforms that can aid in building candidate pools, and in tracking applicants during the hiring process. Just as you wouldn’t expect the fundraising team to reach its goals without a CRM, you shouldn’t expect a hiring team to hit its goals without a similar set of tools at its disposal.

4. Process is Key

Having a good process in place for hiring quality candidates is crucial. But it can be difficult to hammer down exactly what a good process looks like. If diversity is one of your goals, start with looking at who’s included in the decision-making process and make sure they are reflective of the candidate pool you want.

“Avoid using proxies, such as where someone went to school to assess quality,” Wyatt recommends. Resume items like degrees from big-name schools or positions at big brand companies may look impressive, but focusing on these aspects may confuse a candidate’s background of privilege with their actual skills and result in a homogenous group of candidates. Similarly, don’t over-emphasize rapport or cultural fit over more clear and objective indicators of a good candidate like job skills and competencies.

Make sure you’ve got a standardized process in place: No shortcuts and no extra steps for particular candidates. “We’ll see hiring teams want to have different bars at different stages of the process depending on the candidate’s background,” says Wyatt. “For example, someone who’s coming from that top- tier school may not have to perform at as high of a bar in the interview process as somebody who’s not. You don’t want to have different quality bars for different candidates.”

And a crucial step should include a performance task related to the job position. Asking candidates to show–not just tell–how they can do the job is a more authentic assessment and can help you see how a candidate might perform in their job.

5. Hear From Everyone (Yes, Everyone)

You will want to get input from lots of stakeholders at every step of the process. “We build processes where lots of different stakeholder groups from lots of different backgrounds get input into every single step of the process,” says Wyatt. “What are we looking for? What should the job look like? What should the process look like? Who should be involved in the interviews? What are some of the core competencies required for success? And also, just getting them in front of candidates and giving them an opportunity to weigh in.”

Every step needs targets and goals, too. Then, review those targets regularly. If there are discrepancies, investigate what might be causing them, just as you would in any other area of your organization.

6. How To See the Unseen

The hardest, but arguably the most important, part of improving diversity in an organization is recognizing unconscious biases. By their very nature, these biases float below the surface and are hard to identify. An equitable hiring process, says Wyatt, “starts with us working with our hiring committees to do unconscious bias training at the outset of an engagement to make sure that people have a good self-awareness around any sort of preconceived biases that they may be bringing to the process and help them strategize around how to mitigate them.”

So how does an organization or hiring team begin to understand their own biases? Wyatt recommends Harvard University’s Project Implicit. This suite of online quizzes tests an array of biases including around gender, race, religion and sexuality. “In order to be aware of your own biases, you have to be aware of your own blind spots,” says Wyatt.

If you’re looking to improve the diversity in your organization’s hiring, you’ve got to start well before the first candidate walks in the door. Invest in your staff, and set aside time and resources to evaluate your organization’s diversity efforts. Be aware of your unconscious biases and work to mitigate the effect may have on the hiring process. The results are worth it.

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