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How to Hire for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

How to Hire for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Steve Heisler

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A workforce that better represents society is key to sustained innovation and understanding a vast array of consumers 

What Is DEI?

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), while often grouped together, each serve a different purpose. As Janet Stovall, executive communications manager at UPS, explained in a 2018 TED talk: “Diversity is a numbers game. Inclusion is about impact. Companies can mandate diversity, but they have to cultivate inclusion.”

Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO and founder of diversity solutions firm ReadySet, explains that the definition of equity may not be obvious. “Equity is about having everyone get an equal chance to succeed,” Hutchinson says. “That’s different than equality. It’s not treating everyone the same, it’s understanding that people have different needs and different roadblocks to their advancement and really striving to meet those needs as you’re trying to set everybody up for success.” 

The principles of DEI touch every facet of organizations, whether it’s the way employees communicate or who’s represented in upper management, but the work often begins with the hiring process. 


Why Is It Important?

Diverse companies produce stronger business results than those with a more homogenous makeup. Boston Consulting Group found that companies with above-average diversity scores bring in 45% of their revenue through innovation, compared with 26% at companies with below-average marks.

“A lot of the influential cultural happenings [occur] in communities with folks who are underrepresented, and then they’re repackaged by white marketers for a particular kind of audience,” Hutchinson says. “If you want your hand directly on the pulse of what customers want, and what cutting-edge conversations look like, you absolutely need to have a diverse team. Why try to repackage something or try to reach out to a demographic you don’t quite understand, as opposed to hiring somebody who gets it?”

The level of diversity among top-level stakeholders also predicts industry success, according to McKinsey & Company. Companies with the most diverse executive teams were 59% more likely to financially perform above the national industry median, versus 44% of those with the least diversity. The trend holds true for the board of directors: 59% for diverse boards but only 41% for those with the least diversity. 

How to Take Action

“Just because you’re well-intentioned doesn’t give you a pass,” says Kim “Kimfer” Flanery-Rye, founder and principal consultant at DEI consultancy MyKimisms. “You’ve got to do the work.”

A job posting will ultimately be what attracts a diverse pool of candidates to apply, so ensure it sets an inclusive tone. ZipRecruiter found that words such as “strong,” “competitive” and “assertive” skew toward predominantly male traits, while women are associated with words such as “concerned,” “polite,” “pleasant” and “nurture.” The site reinforces the use of emotionally ambiguous language such as “high goals” and “customer service” and noted that open jobs with gender-neutral wording received 42% more applicants. 

Next, comb your listing for any requirements that might favor one group over another. Not everyone has access to the same resources, so requiring candidates to fit a narrow list of criteria might eliminate applicants of color. Instead, measure competency based on demonstrated experience and results, rather than preferred business schools or certain internships. 

What won’t work is tossing in a line in the job description that encourages people of color to apply, then assume your work is done. “It doesn’t inspire confidence from people of color or from underrepresented backgrounds who are applying, and it tends to create more resistance or resentment from white people who are applying,” Hutchinson says. “It’s a good signal, but it’s a signal that needs to be backed up with specific actions to make sure the hiring process itself is de-biased and [is a] reflection of your inclusive values beyond just, ‘We really want people of color to apply.’” 

While it’s certainly important to exhaust the usual job posting channels, such as LinkedIn or Glassdoor, now is the time to discover paths to underrepresented candidates. Reach out to people of color in your network and ask about any professional organizations that could amplify your posting to attract an applicant base from many backgrounds. Don’t hesitate to ask for referrals or spell out your desire for change. “A lot of times people are really risk averse in terms of who they refer—they refer people who already fit the pattern of folks on the team,” Hutchinson says. “It’s important when you’re talking about referrals that you emphasize that what you really want is diversity, and that you’re open to different profiles.” 

Be patient: It may take some time to amass a healthy variety of applicants, but shoot for the “Rooney Rule.” Based on an NFL policy, the rule stipulates that some percentage of applicants—it varies by company—must come from underrepresented backgrounds. Consider setting that percentage high, as Flanery-Rye cautions that the fewer the candidates of color, the more likely it is that early screening rounds will eliminate them all. 

A diverse group of interviewers also demonstrates a company’s ongoing commitment to a representative staff, so stack the process with a healthy selection of viewpoints and experiences. Flanery-Rye concedes that your staff may not currently showcase much diversity—particularly if DEI efforts are only just now top of mind—but try to include women and people of color on the hiring team. 

Flanery-Rye also recommends standardizing evaluation forms and asking interviewers to back up their observations with facts. “Not just saying something like, ‘This person doesn’t feel like a good cultural fit’—that is so broad, and bias can totally fit in there,” she says. “But saying, ‘This person has strong communication skills as evidenced by …’ Think about how [to] support observations to make them feel as objective as possible.” 

What sometimes comes next doesn’t surprise Hutchinson or Flanery-Rye, but it is problematic: Someone engaged in the hiring process might endorse a white candidate and say, “I want to hire the most qualified person, regardless of color—I don’t see color.” 

“You’re actually being racist,” Flanery-Rye says. “To say, ‘I don’t see color’ … What they’re saying is, ‘I don’t see color in the way that I think of whiteness, and how whiteness comes through for others.’ … It is possible that you might have picked the right candidate or the best candidate out of the pool that you have, but the problem with that is the pool itself was biased.” 

The work of DEI doesn’t cease once a diverse candidate is hired. Flanery-Rye encourages providing what she refers to as a “soft landing,” which means that current employees are versed in the language of DEI and best practices have been implemented. This provides an opportunity to showcase your commitment to equity and inclusion. 

Lastly—and importantly—pay your new hire as much as you would any candidate, include them in all relevant meetings (impromptu or otherwise) and open channels of communication with leadership for them. By demonstrating your commitment to DEI, employees of color will share their positive experiences with others in their community, which further diversifies the applicant pool you receive for the next open position. 

Steve Heisler served as staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at