Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations
Professor of Management & Organizations; Professor of Sociology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences (Courtesy)
In many organizations, efforts to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive are falling short.
Perhaps senior leaders wonder why the “ideal” Black or Latinx candidate never seems to apply to an open position. Or they notice that, despite mandating diversity training for managers, employees from underrepresented groups are rarely promoted.
“I think organizations are sort of reckoning with the [reality that] feelings or desires are not enough, that there’s more that needs to be done,” says Ivuoma Onyeador, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg.
All too often, she explains, that reckoning comes only after being called out for insensitive comments or outright discriminatory behavior. “Over the last few years, several companies have faced allegations of discrimination and have had to wrestle with how to address these incidents.”
The stakes for doing better are high—for society, and for the organizations, which face reputational risks and market risks if they cannot reach an increasingly diverse base of employees and customers.
Thankfully, there are tangible things that leaders can do to promote meaningful change in their organizations.
Lauren Rivera, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, studies “gatekeeper moments”—in her words, those “critical moments with careers and within firms where we see bias emerge and where we begin to see inequality between groups.”
She’s spent a decade studying the recruitment practices of elite firms. Rivera has found that firms tend to zero in on certain credentials—such as attending a prestigious university—so exclusively that it can be nearly impossible for other qualified applicants to even get an interview.
“One of the recruiters said, ‘I’m just being really honest: for a nontargeted application, it pretty much goes into a black hole,’” she says.
This is in part because recruiters equated a university’s prestige with the intelligence of its students. Yet, university prestige is also highly associated with factors such as wealth and race.
“By making this decision to only consider a very, very narrow segment of the population, firms are defining the pipeline in a very narrow way that’s going to limit racial diversity as well,” Rivera says.
The move is extremely shortsighted: diversity concerns aside, she explains, research suggests that there’s no relationship between school prestige and job performance. There is, however, a relationship between school prestige and turnover—with graduates of more prestigious schools tending to leave the organization more quickly than other graduates.
Rivera has also found that recruiters pay surprisingly close attention to extracurricular activities on resumes—perhaps as a proxy for a candidate’s work ethic, drive, or well-roundedness.
“A banker I interviewed said, ‘Activities are the only way to judge initiative: schoolwork is given to them,’” she says.
The problem: not all extracurriculars are equally valued. Rather, recruiters and hiring managers tend to prefer activities such as varsity sports, which require a lot of time and resources from a very young age—privileging applicants from wealthy families. Activities that involve caregiving or paid employment are less prized.
“Unstructured interviews are some of the worst predictors of job performance.”
— Lauren Rivera
In another study, she and her colleagues submitted fictitious resumes to real law firms to see which would get a bite. The resumes were identical, except for the names and the extracurricular activities, which were designed to be stereotypically upper-class or working-class. They found that the firms heavily preferred applicants who read as upper-class white males over applicants from other races and classes. (Additionally, specific stereotypes about upper-class white women, such as the belief they are likely to put their careers on hold if they become mothers, emerged as a factor.)
Finally, even after candidates make it through resume screening, the common practice of using mostly unstructured interviews can also tilt the playing field. That’s because, when assessment is so subjective, interviewers tend to evaluate how much chemistry or comradery they feel with the applicant.
“We actually know that unstructured interviews are some of the worst predictors of job performance,” Rivera explains. “We used to think they just weren’t very good, they weren’t accurate. But there’s evidence to suggest now that they actually help us make worse decisions.”
So what can leaders do to promote a more equitable hiring process? For one, Rivera advises them to drastically rethink how they are recruiting and screening candidates in the first place.
“Oftentimes we hear this ‘pipeline’ excuse. And it is an excuse. There are so many talented people out there,” says Rivera. “They might be at schools … that are not our typical schools, they might be in a different geographic area, but there are highly qualified, highly talented individuals of color or women in almost any industry you can think of. We are just systematically refusing to consider them.”
She also advises replacing parts of the hiring process with skills tests, which (unlike unstructured interviews) actually can predict job performance. She points to a company called Gap Jumpers, which helps organizations design “blind skills auditions” to test an applicant’s readiness to step into a given role.
Of course, stripping biases from the hiring process is only one step toward building diverse organizations. Companies ultimately need to create an entire culture that is equitable and inclusive.
But many of the most common tools for doing so, such as diversity training, aren’t always as effective as they could be. In part that’s because a lot of diversity training focuses heavily on implicit bias. The idea, Onyeador explains, is that everyone’s “implicit biases can negatively affect decision-making and behavior towards members of stigmatized groups.”
Implicit-bias training is a popular choice because it certainly seems like it should lead to more open and honest conversations about race. “Because people have limited control and awareness of implicit bias, then people should be less defensive,” says Onyeador.
But researchers have found that this isn’t always the case: plenty of white people still do respond defensively to information that indicates they might have implicit biases. Moreover, because these biases are, well, implicit, they are resistant to change. So becoming more aware of these biases doesn’t necessarily lead people to change their actual decisions and behaviors. Evidence for longer-term change—change that lasts weeks or years—is particularly scant.
Even more troublingly, in some of her own research, Onyeador has found that framing discrimination in terms of implicit biases makes people who observe discrimination less likely to want to hold the perpetrators accountable.
Onyeador does not believe that companies should move away from diversity training altogether. Instead, she advises companies to be upfront about what they can and can’t expect from the training.
They can expect to educate employees—and ideally provide employees with useful strategies for mitigating the harm of their biases. They cannot realistically expect that nobody will feel threatened by the training. In fact, they should anticipate defensiveness and come up with a plan for facing it head on—perhaps by presenting employees with accurate data to combat misconceptions about whether change is necessary, or reiterating that an inclusive organization has benefits for everyone.
She also stresses that training must also be accompanied by other sustained (and measurable) efforts, which might include mentoring programs or other targeted interventions. “Trainings aren’t a one-shot fix-all for our issues,” says Onyeador. “We recommend instead that organizations develop a comprehensive diversity strategy, with training as one component.”
Jessica Love is editor in chief of Kellogg Insight.