When I was hired at my first job out of grad school, I was told by a colleague that they had been “looking for a Black guy” but couldn’t find one so they hired me because “I had the Black part.” Umm, thanks? At the time I thought it odd that I was told this, but now I appreciate the honesty. In matters of workplace diversity, things are rarely this black and white. (Pun kinda intended.)
“Diversity” is a hot topic in career/workforce development spaces, and has been for a long enough time where the phrase “hot topic” should no longer apply. But it does, because folks can’t seem to get it right.
I recently stumbled up an article on the Atlantic’s website which discusses this at length – how businesses “talk” about diversity and put initiatives in place to diversify their workforce, but many of them don’t pan out. They found that the results tend to make White workers feel like there is fairness in hiring, even if the actual level of diversity within the company stays the same or even declines. The article then discusses how applicants of color try to game this system by ‘whitening’ their resumes – changing their names to be less obviously ethnic, removing affinity group affiliations, etc – in recognition of the fact that stated diversity goals often don’t pan out in actual hiring practices.
Some of the article’s comments reflected readers’ shock and dismay at this, but it definitely wasn’t a shock to me. I’ve worked at places where diversity was supposed to be a priority, then been reprimanded for bringing it up. Also, being in the career services space and having done office visits at plenty of companies that tout diversity but only have token levels of representation, I’ve seen this across industries and locations. I read the above article with a “yeah, and?” attitude. I was looking for solutions, and I found none.
I think the reason that workplace diversity is still an issue is because 1) it’s ‘really hard’ to achieve and 2) not everyone has the same idea of what it means. Let’s unpack these further.
1. It’s “really hard”
Diversifying your workforce requires a level of effort and intentionality than it normally takes to fill an open position. The conventional wisdom about how hiring works is that companies post a position, review resumes, interview the most qualified candidates, and hire the best one. This isn’t entirely accurate. Hiring is always about more than qualifications, it’s also about fit – All things being equal, which of the applicants will best fit in with the team we’ve already established? But that’s the problem! In a homogeneous workplace, the person who the hiring committee deems to be the best fit is often the person who is most like the team they already have in place. Therefore, in an effort to not upset the existing balance (aka: disrupt the status quo), they hire the White guy. (Yep, it’s usually a White guy. Don’t believe me? Read this.)
Add to this the fact that all things typically aren’t equal, and you get the rest of the issue. Often, when pressed about the lack of workplace diversity, folks in charge say something along the lines of “We just want the best people.” While this belies the common idea that from above – that qualifications matter most – we know that this isn’t true. Where a candidate was educated, what networks the candidate belongs to, and how the candidate gained their experience are all factors in the hiring process. And, as I’ve written about before, people of color tend to have the wrong answers to these unstated questions. Most of us have attended the wrong schools, belong to the wrong networks, and worked at the wrong places to most forward in many corporate spaces. And, even if we have all of the right names on our resumes, the fact remains that we’re still people of color and our qualifications are always deemed less than because, diversity. (Behold the cycle.)
If companies really want to diversify their staffs, they need to embrace the hard work that goes into it. Change up the hiring process so that the unstated (and often illegal) identifiers don’t carry more weight than the actual human who has applied to the position. Look at both talent and potential, and be as objective as possible. They must make the effort to ensure that all things really are being considered equally.
2. Differing definitions
“Diversity” is a very fluid term that means different things to different people. This ambiguity contributes to the issues surrounding workplace diversity because different operational definitions lead to conflict when implementing solutions. In my eyes, the key question about diversifying a workforce is this: Do you prefer m&ms or skittles?
Let me explain.
People who prefer m&ms are those who think a diversified workplace consists of a bunch of people who all look different, but really aren’t. Like a bag of m&ms, this workplace is an array of colors but there are no substantive differences between the people. (At least, none that workers are allowed to express. More on this later.) On the other hand, people who prefer skittles are those who want both external and internal diversity. This workplace has differences of demographics, but also appreciates (or at least accepts) differences of thoughts and opinions.
A lot of workplaces have the m&ms mentality when it comes to diversity because it allows them to give the appearance of progress without really making any changes. Sure, they hire people who are from non-majority groups, but these differences aren’t celebrated beyond PR reports that tout how “diverse” their workforce is. This makes it difficult to maintain even a superficial level of diversity because of the toxicity of such an environment for people who are hired so that HR can ‘check the box.’ The people who occupy these spaces of difference aren’t supported because of the blindness and ignorance regarding their identities means that the necessity of such support is often overlooked. It is oppressive and exhausting to be your inauthentic self for 40+ hours per week, so these employees often leave in search of a more skittles-like environment where their differences will be seen as strengths. While a m&ms workplace is likely easier for a boss to maintain, a real leader should strive for the skittles model.
Workplace diversity is as much about having a culture of acceptance and buy-in as it is with having different-looking people working together. In other words, it’s more than optics.
Companies will always vary in their commitment to diversity – no matter its stated position – but job seekers who believe that a diverse workplace is the best for them should assess for this. Websites are a good place to start, but given what we know about appearances vs. reality, they should not be your only source. If you’re not in the interviewing stage, try to set up an informational interview with someone who shares your identities and/or background at a company of interest. Such a meeting is perfect for this type of information gathering because it is informal and (often) off-site. You’ll be able to get the low-down before going through the effort of applying. (Use LinkedIn to contact such people.) Or, if you’ve already applied and are getting ready to interview, make sure inquiries about company culture and norms are included in any questions you have for the interviewers. You need to gather as much information as possible so you can make an informed decision about your future.
Being a ‘diversity hire’ can suck if it’s you’re in the wrong place. In the position from the opening, it was fine. My boss and colleagues were open to my ideas and expertise – both personal and professional. My identity was an asset, and I was very professionally satisfied in this role. In other companies, I was definitely the boat-rocker when I would infuse aspects of my identity and experiences as a Black woman into my practice. Going to work everyday was a struggle because I knew that I was expected to subsume myself for the comfort of others. (Though I rarely did, which caused more problems.) Almost all of my bosses have been White women, so the differing reactions can’t be 100% attributed to the race or gender of my supervisor. Rather, upon reflection, the key difference was their individual mindsets surrounding workplace diversity and its level of usefulness on a daily basis. The ones who valued it, valued me; and vice versa.
I’m clearly a skittles kind of girl, and I don’t do well in m&ms worlds.