Lo and behold someone from Google has opened a can of diversity worms and everybody is now squirming uncomfortably in their seats. So who’s right and who’s wrong? For all the big talk on equality and diversity, where does this leave us?
The majority have been quick to condemn Google employee James Damore’s critique of the company’s diversity policies, and they should – nobody should be made to feel unwelcome in their own workplace. Even if James was somehow dropping truth bombs (which he wasn’t), he seems to have fundamentally misunderstood the concept of mutual respect for your colleagues, and also the most basic HR expectations.
But there’s a point here that James may have unearthed (albeit in an incredibly stupid and harmful way that we absolutely disagree with) – Silicon Valley, and by extension workplaces in general, are approaching diversity in a way that has serious holes, holes that might make people like James confused, apprehensive, even hostile. For all the work organisations are putting in to increase their workforce diversity, too much of it is cosmetic and too much of it is divisive without substantially diversifying a company’s workforce, skillsets, experiences, and problem-solving abilities.
It is not for a lack of trying and we don’t think the problem is diversity itself. The problem lies in approaching diversity in a way that leaves everyone unhappy, and doesn’t solve the problem. Here’s where we think the main issues are:
Diversity as lip service
Most of the conversation about diversity currently is just too vague. For many companies, including those here in Australia, any concrete reporting on how diverse they actually are, and what that means, is rare. What numbers we do see are discouraging. Google itself is still mostly white and mostly male, despite the recent controversy, and is actually currently in legal trouble following accusations of ‘systemic compensation disparities’. If senior management isn’t following through on their own rhetoric, is it any wonder people are going to become disillusioned and unhappy?
This kind of failure to walk the talk is evident in Australia in a report by KPMG for the ASX Corporate Governance Council. According to report findings, many ASX200 companies are still largely paying lip service on gender diversity with diversity policies and targets that don’t do much to disguise the fact that diversity at higher levels is actually worse than it was five years ago. This on top of vague reporting about diversity amongst ‘senior executives’ – a broad and unclear category – makes it feel like many companies in Australia are giving lip service to diverse workforces and little else.
As one of our speakers Carmen Hudson said during the Sourcing Social Talent 2017 conference – “Diversity is not a recruiter’s problem, it is everybody’s problem. Before you jump headlong into this, have an honest conversation with your company’s senior executives so that you can avoid unrealistic expectations and promises.”
In other words, if you commit to diversity publicly, and then fall down publicly, you’re going to drive a wedge into your own workforce without anything to show for it.
Diversity as a Marketing/PR tool
Yes, we know having a diverse workforce is something to be proud of and you want show everyone that you are actually hiring diversely, that’s positive. But a flashy ad doesn’t prove anything on its own, doesn’t improve diversity on its own, and if you combine it with the above mentioned failure to deliver the goods, just undermines your credibility.
We had an interesting chat with Cogent’s Head of Recruitment Ruby Lee recently about a conversation she had with a female candidate (let’s call her Jane). Jane was hired as an Engineer in her previous company and not long after her start was asked to appear in a photoshoot for her company’s corporate brochure. A couple of weeks later Jane was asked to represent her company at a graduate recruitment event and soon she was appearing in all her company’s marketing collateral and websites.
Jane hated it. She felt that she was being coerced unwillingly into becoming the poster child of her company and it was something she did not enjoy doing. All she wanted to do was do her job, code, and be left alone. We are pretty sure Jane is not alone in this situation and this constant need to show everyone that your organisation is pro-diversity can very easily come off as counter to your actual situation, and fake.
As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words (or in this case photoshoots and unwilling mascots). If you are keen to improve workplace diversity, you will need to start having deep conversations with your employees to find out the true nature and strength of bias that exists in your organisation. Having a woman on your brochure means nothing on its own, and we guarantee you she will know if you’re giving her the run-around. Produce something tangible. Only then will you be able to move forward in your diversity journey.
Where’s the pipeline?
This one’s a problem for the biggest organisations out there: their pipelines themselves are not delivering the results they want, and are actually seeding resistance to diversity within their own workforce in a way that results in, well, this week’s Google drama.
Most company want to hire the best of the best, and want to hire from the most prestigious schools and courses, right? That’s not weird at all, it makes perfect sense, actually. But consider this: there is a real problem with diversity going back to schools and interpersonal networks, especially in the STEM field. There just isn’t a lot of diversity there to begin with, and the insistence companies have about hiring from these pools explicitly means they’ve hamstrung their diversity efforts before they even start. This isn’t news, even Facebook has talked extensively about it.
Most importantly, to bring it back to the wedge this kind of approach drives into your own workplace, it also makes diversity potentially divisive. The talent you draw from these those pools aren’t necessarily going to notice the lack of diversity, and when you don’t think something is a problem, you’re going to resent efforts to fix it. After all, when you’re demonstrably the best in your field, are you going to link your hiring back to your own obvious, provable talent and work ethic, or are you going to see it as at least partially aided by power and privilege? We think the answer is pretty apparent when you look at this Google incident.
The Silver Lining
So the problem here is deep and multifaceted and it creates situations where your workforce might end up resenting efforts to diversify, and lash out. Diversity is positive, and achievable, but a lack of communication, a lack of diversity KPIs, and flaws in diverse hiring programs that go way back right into the institutions companies hire from, creates frustrations. Over time, these things get pent-up, and there will come a breaking point, as evident here. Keeping things like this from happening requires a lot of changes, and not little ones, or comfortable ones. We have to expect more outbursts like this.
It must be a bitter pill to swallow for those who believe they are truly invested in improving their workforce diversity. Just when it seems things are moving in the right direction, something like this happens and suddenly people need to take a good hard look at their efforts. It’s natural to want to dismiss it, but learning opportunities come from everywhere.
And hey, whoever said achieving diversity is going to be an easy ride? At least now these issues are out in the open. We will be all the better for that.
The Contingent Workforce Conference in September teaches you how to better manage and take advantage of your contingent workforce function. Tickets available here.
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