The social challenges of the pandemic were felt more acutely in industries built on human connection than in those that were more autonomous and individualistic. It may be a cliché example, but the truth is that a lot of computer programmers hardly felt the effects of isolation; it just wasn’t that odd to work independently and communicate via email.
Staffing professionals, meanwhile, felt their world turn upside down.
In the first article in this series we looked at the most obvious and confronting challenge that the staffing industry faced during COVID: remote work. But here we’ll turn our focus to a more subtle and insidious challenge. It was one not only highlighted during the pandemic, but during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, too.
It’s time to talk about diversity, equality, and inclusion, or DEI.
It’s human nature: you need to fill a job, so you look for the sort of person that you know can do it – someone who looks, sounds, and thinks exactly the same as those who have done it before, and the rest of your current team. It’s hardwired into our brains that to break from familiarity is to take a risk.
“I think that in staffing we tend to hire like us, and hire for culture fit,” says DeLibra Wesley, Chief Operating Officer of The Delta Companies. This second, more recent trend has only served to exacerbate the first – for some employers ‘culture fit’ has become a catch-all excuse for declining to hire anyone who strays from their current monotony. But the risks of such practices are huge, continues Wesley: “we can end up with very homogeneous teams that aren't very diversified and don’t bring in a huge amount of different perspectives.”
Why is a diverse set of people and perspectives important? Jeff Wald, Founder of WorkMarket, explains. “Only diverse teams can truly problem solve. They provide ideas for new products and solutions that may not occur to someone who fits the normal mold.”
Armed with an array of life experiences and different ways of thinking, a diverse team will attack a problem from all angles, or indeed see a problem or opportunity where a homogeneous team may not.
As a black female leader in a white male-dominated industry (aren’t they all?), Wesley is more aware of this than most. Despite that, she and her company were far from immune from DEI issues. “At The Delta Companies we found that our staff is about 50% men and 50% women, and that 65% of our top producers are female. Nevertheless, female representation goes way down in leadership.”
A knee-jerk reaction to all modern problems is to attempt to solve them with technology. But as a very human issue, technology is limited in its usefulness. In fact, it may be having a counterproductive effect.
The use of AI is increasing, but this is a technology that tends to reinforce existing biases. It picks up trends and patterns from existing data, and if that data is tainted with even the most subtle bias, the AI will increasingly drive teams toward homogeneity.
Say you tell your AI to remove all applicants that didn’t go to college. This is currently the overwhelming trend, with 60% of job scripts requiring four-years of higher education. The problem? Only 32% of people have done four years of college. These rules will ensure that huge swathes of the population will never have a job, and endless jobs will be left unfilled, despite many people being more than qualified.
Solving such deep-seated issues can seem an intimidating prospect, even more so in an isolated pandemic environment.
The numbers tell us that COVID has pushed working women back to 1986. So many have had to leave or press pause on their careers, simply because they’re expected to take care of the family. To get women back in the game will be to rethink work history gaps, because huge swathes of our workforce will now have them. Around 10 million people now have a work history gap through no fault of their own – their work simply wasn’t COVID-safe. An employer or recruiter mustn’t get put off by such gaps, and must get context around why each exists.
A lot of employers are more afraid of overreacting to the problem of DEI than they are of the problem itself. On a human level this makes sense, because DEI demands change, and most employers and leaders are quite comfortable right where they are, thank you very much. It’s the classic ‘slippery slope’ mindset.
“When people hear the words ‘adjusting hiring requirements’, the reflex reaction is ‘I don’t want to lower the bar to meet quotas’,” says Wald, “but there is zero data to support the idea that you get lower quality candidates when you try to create a diverse hiring pool. If you have that mindset, it’s not a matter of lowering a high bar, it’s that the bar is set in the entirely wrong place.
“Take the 60% of jobs needing a four-year degree, while only 32% of the workforce has one. That bar simply doesn’t make sense.”
The data bears this out. Pre-COVID there were 5 million unemployed people in the US, but 7 million job openings. In an efficient market the people without jobs would fill those open roles. One of the major reasons they didn’t was because of bars that were put in the wrong place, leading to the resumes of capable candidates being put in the trash, and without so much as a second (or indeed even first) thought.
We understand the issues, and we recognize the benefits of solving them. The next question: how?
Any business’s DEI efforts can be split into two main categories:
Each is a topic worthy of its own article, so that’s exactly what we’ll give them. Join us next time as we take a closer look at how to attract and hire in a more DEI-conscious way.