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Fairness, not diversity

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Over the summer, I visited my brother and his family on their annual vacation to the picturesque seaside town of Torcross, England. Torcross is a stunning little village set within the South Devon area, famous for its cracking beaches and stunning coastline.

One afternoon, I was chatting to my sister-in-law, Charlene, who is a senior HR executive at a global management consulting firm in London. The topic of recruiting talent came up. With a smile, she said one of the greatest challenges for their firm was encouraging the partners to hire people who were not exactly like themselves. The partners tended to want to hire cookie-cutter versions of themselves.

This is not uncommon; we all like people who are like us. We think that easy communication about the things we have in common will ensure a smooth working relationship. After all, we have the same interests and sense of humor, and Friday night drinks will be fun.

From the agency side, we know that there is a distinct bias toward hiring people from the same school and same background as the hiring manager. I’ve been told numerous times over the past 20 years, “Phillip, we’re looking for someone from outside the pharmaceutical industry, we are very open, and we encourage diversity.” I would say that 9.9 times out of 10, they end up hiring someone with a similar background from a similar type of company.

Why is it so difficult to hire people from outside our box? Maybe one of the worst phrases ever used in recruitment or job descriptions is, “We’re looking to hire someone who can think outside the box.” It isn’t true; people want to hire people who are in the box and can perform very well within the parameters set by the firm.

Hiring a diverse talent pool means that we really must put our biases to one side. The first step to recovery, as they say, is to admit you’ve got a problem. Most hiring managers are biased. This is not their fault, per se; this is human nature.

Recruiting firms go along with this line of thought as well, because they are being paid to introduce talent that will eventually be hired, so it only makes sense for them to introduce candidates with the highest likelihood of being hired.

“Why do we want to hire a diverse talent pool?” people might ask. “Don’t we just want to hire the best person for the job?”

Most companies look to frame the case for diversity as either “a business case” or one of “fairness.”

According to a recent study by Harvard Business Review, neither argument gels with the very groups they are looking to represent. The participants in the survey thought that they may be stereotyped. The study showed that it would be better for firms to have either a neutral or fairness statement.

At the end of the day, it seems that the business case for diversity backfires. It implies that hiring the underrepresented group is a means to an end. “It’s about the bottom line, dummy.” It may well be setting that group up to be ostracized, or to fail. Once someone from the under-represented group isn’t a superstar, the knives may well come out. Imagine walking into a firm, thinking you may be the “diversity hire”?

Internal and external candidates are not looking for a handout. They are looking for a fair go.

What can organizations do instead?

Make fairness a core value. After all, firms do not have to justify “innovation, working together, and relationships first.”

How a company talks about diversity has a significant impact on whether it can reach its diversity targets. Perhaps, a fairness mark may be a more attainable goal.


Getting Serious About Diversity: Enough Already with the Business Case (

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