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Tina Casey headshot

DEI is Building Up and Branching Out

Human resources departments are confronted by a wide range of choices when evaluating DEI programs and the impact they have on employees and the company. A combination of data and human insights can point leaders in the right direction.
By Tina Casey
we are hiring sign - DEI in hiring

(Image: BreizhAtao/Adobe Stock)

Corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs have become more sophisticated over the years, providing new opportunities to attract and retain top talent. That also means human resources departments are confronted by a wider range of choices when evaluating DEI programs and the impact they have on employees and the company. Making the right choice is critical because there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and a combination of data and human insights can point a company in the right direction.  

Deploying data for DEI

When the tech recruiting firm Built In asked hiring teams how they are supporting their hiring pipelines with DEI initiatives, the importance of data was a common thread among their answers. 

“Hiring can be a complex set of processes to evaluate and codify, but that isn’t stopping culture leaders from making moves in the right direction,” noted Conlan Carter, a writer at Built In. “Organizations like Headway and Belvedere Trading are utilizing a data-focused approach to identify problem areas in all areas of their hiring process, and teams at Calm are applying modern tools to support a growing diverse candidate pool.”

Headway provides a good example. “Data tracking has played a large role in our ability to diversify our candidate pool,” Natalie Dunnege, the company’s head of talent acquisition, told Built In.

Headway is a national, virtual mental health services network. The wide geographical reach of the business offers both challenges and opportunities for building workforce diversity.

“Hiring demographic data provides patterns in candidate activity," Dunnege said. "Those patterns point toward where to dig deep and problem-solve. We also track the percentage of Headway interviewers and hiring managers who are trained in inclusive hiring practices with a goal of 100 percent completion. We then use our demographic funnel data to help identify whether a hiring team is upholding those practices.”

Human connections and the “pipeline” myth

The human factor is another key element. The website CIO, which focuses on news and insights for chief information officers, described how the nonprofit organization Black Tech Pipeline helps connect Black professionals with hiring teams that have strong DEI profiles.

The idea for Black Tech Pipeline took shape in 2018 when Pariss Chandler, the founder and software engineer, asked her social media followers on X (formerly Twitter), “What does Black Twitter in Tech look like?

The question grew out of her experiences being the only Black person at her workplace. The need to connect on a personal level hit a chord. The tweet went viral. It sparked a flood of responses, including messages from companies seeking help recruiting Black professionals.

Chandler began to pinpoint a key obstacle to diversity hiring in the tech field: the illusion that there are not enough Black professionals in the pipeline.

“Companies expect [Black tech professionals] to come to them, but these people do not know they exist or cannot access them,” Chandler told CIO. “So, how do they expect them to find the opportunities available to them?” 

“The illusion of a 'pipeline problem' is perpetuated by the bubbles that exist in the technology sector — people think there aren’t enough Black IT candidates simply because they don’t see Black tech professionals at conferences, in leadership positions, or applying to jobs in their organization,” Sarah K. White wrote for CIO. “And, on the flip side, many Black tech professionals don’t have the right networks and connections to find available jobs."

Surmounting this obstacle is a matter of hiring teams breaking out of their comfortable social bubbles and actively seeking new opportunities to connect in person. “Many jobs are landed by referrals, connections, and shared networks, so it’s important that those networks remain diverse,” White concluded.

Moving beyond metrics

Another perspective on the human factor is provided by A. Benjamin Spencer, dean of William and Mary Law School. In an op-ed published by Bloomberg Law in November, Spencer noted that diversity programs at law schools and other employers have faced mounting criticism in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision on affirmative action.

“Setting aside the legal question of whether the decision requires a change in these programs — a matter the courts will sort out — it seems they must and will evolve away from their traditional focus on hiring 'diverse' candidates toward some other approach. But what should that approach be?” Spencer said.

Spencer anticipates that employers will seek new opportunities to address under-representation at the root. That means, in part, that hiring teams will need to view candidate excellence through a holistic lens that considers factors beyond “the best grades, the highest scores, or the most awards,” he said.

Drawing from his own experience, Spencer notes that the conventional metrics of “the best” fail to factor in the importance of personal qualities. He lists maturity, judgment, empathy, personality, perspective and experience among other key elements.

“Fundamentally, any hiring process should have as its lodestar excellence as appropriately and broadly defined to place the best people in the job,” he said.

Similar to Chandler, Spencer advocates for law firms to move beyond their traditional focus on hiring from particular law schools. They also need to engage with regional and specialty career fairs to connect with a more robust, diverse pool of prospective employees.

When applied to employers in general, Spencer’s guidance would replace an exclusive reliance on test scores and other metrics with an “inclusive excellence” model that takes other factors into consideration.

“But this is only part of the solution; firms must pay attention to the entire pipeline that produces the pool of candidates, taking care to provide equal opportunities for people from all backgrounds to enter and successfully to progress through the gauntlet that culminates in graduation and professional licensure,” Spencer said.

Next steps for DEI

Despite an overwhelming consensus on the bottom-line benefits of workforce diversity, the political and legal backlash against corporate DEI programs continues to pose a challenge.

Some business leaders and organizations are simply ignoring the anti-DEI chatter. Others, however, are searching for ways to create the conditions for progress without expressing the acronym “DEI.”

The language dilemma was described in a Psychology Today article written by Eden King and Mikki Hebl, the authors of the new book, "Working Together: Practicing the Science of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion."

“We recently wrote a book about how people, leaders and organizations can apply scientific findings toward improving diversity, equity and inclusion,” King and Hebl wrote. “That’s what every one of the 216 pages of the book is about. Yet… we seriously considered leaving those words out of the title.”

“Anti-DEI discourse suggests that these programs are about unfair and illegal decision-making that favors one group above another,” they said. “In fact, any such effort would be entirely contradictory to the notions of diversity, equity and inclusion."

Joelle Emerson, co-founder and CEO of the DEI firm Paradigm, also observes that anti-DEI critics have gone over the top.

“The term DEI has become weaponized and cast as the villain in the economic or social issue of the moment,” she wrote in an op-ed published by Fortune. “This year alone, it’s been blamed for a bank collapse, a train derailment and, most recently, antisemitism on college campuses.”

King and Hebl suggest that adopting alternative language like difference, belongingness and fairness could help hiring teams skirt some of the most hyperbolic objections, but that may ultimately prove ineffective in today’s hothouse partisan political environment.

As the anti-DEI movement continues to gather force, business leaders will need to step up and assert their right to talk about DEI in any way they choose.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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