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It was a conversation like so many I’ve had with leaders over the years. The three executives on the line were seasoned, smart, curious, and good-hearted. They wanted to do the right thing for their employees and their customers, especially in the wake of this year’s civil unrest over racial injustice. They wanted to “do diversity” right.

And yet they were wrapped around the axle in despair. Why? Because they believed doing diversity right meant “diversifying” their workforce, and their industry doesn’t tend to attract “diverse” talent. They were in a panic over how to hire more Black and brown people. “We’re a highly specialized, technical field,” an HR leader said tensely. “How do we recruit more ‘diverse’ talent when there aren’t ‘diverse’ students in the university pipeline?” “Not only that,” chimed in a COO, “our general counsel is going to have a fit if we try to institute quotas for hiring. I mean, Is that even legal?

Whew. Such uninformed anxiety is so common among leaders it makes my heart hurt. I took a deep breath and remembered: That’s why I’m there — to reduce anxiety and increase sanity with facts and reassurance.

First of all, I told them, it’s a common yet bad habit to call people of color (POC) “diverse.” I’ve explained many times that referring to POC — or women and POC — as “diverse” reinforces the non-inclusive notion that “diversity” is only about and for women and POC. This is inaccurate, narrow, divisive, and unproductive.

Second, racial quotas in hiring are, and have always been, illegal in the United States. Affirmative action, in both hiring and education, requires some entities to take “affirmative” (active) steps to recruit, fairly hire, and advance members of marginalized groups. This means including a person’s identity as a factor in decision-making. The purpose of these steps is to ensure fairness by combating systemic biases that produce inequitable results.

Third, the idea that “doing diversity right” means hiring more Black and brown bodies is old-school, 1980s-flavor Diversity 1.0. It sets organizations up for frustration and impossible expectations for three reasons:

  1. Organizations don’t have full control over the talent pipeline. Companies can, should, and do play a role in creating more equitable societies by providing employment access, career pathways, mentorship, and talent development. However, they can’t combat poverty, create better public policy, or improve educational access alone; collaboration with multiple partners is required to shift the pipeline. Also, community demographics affect an organization’s ability to attract talent from groups who don’t live within a commutable distance (if we ever go back to office working!).
  2. Talent pipeline problems require long-term generational solutions. They can’t be meaningfully solved in two to five years, and therefore don’t provide the short-term wins and ROI that fuel confidence and build momentum for diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) goals. A thin talent pipeline requires long-term investment and partnership among various entities.
  3. It’s neither possible, nor desirable, for all organizations to mirror all demographics. Such a goal actually reduces diversity! Now, organizations and leaders should avoid jumping quickly to the conclusion that “Well, ‘they’ just must not want to do this type of work/work here/be a leader!” Such thinking kept women out of high-paying industries and jobs for generations, and still does. We should explore the root causes of a thin pipeline — look at the data and listen to the stories — instead of assuming a lack of interest. And yet we should also allow for the possibility that some individuals and groups might not feel drawn to certain fields, jobs, roles and geographies, and maybe that’s OK.

Yes, equitable access and opportunities to advance are critical, and most organizations can make improvements in these areas. However, there are additional areas where leaders can focus to increase inclusion and equity while building a talent pipeline. Read the rest on!

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