The diversity sourcing paradox

Janelle Okwodu

In the business world, diversity is more of a priority than it’s ever been, but we’re getting it wrong. After years of public commitments and throwing money at the problem with marginal improvements, we need to get clear on why we’re failing.

The truth is that we don’t know what to change, or rather, we refuse to consider that we are what needs to change. A recent Washington Post article exposing Google’s discriminatory approach to recruiting students from select Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is an example of what happens when we stack diversity initiatives on top of an already broken system. As harrowing as Google’s revelations are, companies are overlooking highly qualified people across the board on a daily basis, especially for senior and strategic positions. In order to improve diversity representation in the ranks, we must recognize and address the primary ways that we’ve created our own roadblocks.

First, we seem to forget that title distribution reflects our current state of diversity underrepresentation. The conventional approach to finding talent is to anchor search by job title. To find a sales account executive, it’s common to look for candidates with the account executive (or similar) title. Don’t have that title? Good luck. Even if you apply, you’re unlikely to make it through the initial resume screen.

Relying on title as the primary indicator of qualification is ultimately bad for everyone, but disparately impacts people in underrepresented groups who are, by definition, statistically unlikely to hold the titles that they’ve been systematically excluded from. There are countless public examples of people in underrepresented groups who left top companies following both subtle and rash forms of discrimination from managers and human resources, therefore missing out on the next promotion. Even more have been overlooked before they could get a foot in the door. The path to senior and strategic titles has not been created equally, and we can’t reasonably expect to fix underrepresentation while at the same time relying on titles for search or review qualification.

Second, we exhaustively look for Black talent in the most obvious places, naively believing that these continue to represent the majority of Black professionals. In asking companies how they source diverse talent over the past three years, the majority of answers have revolved around using diversity boolean strings for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Black LinkedIn groups, and other affiliations for Black professionals. This is highly problematic for several reasons.

For one, while HBCUs are focal points of Black education, culture, and identity, graduates represent a shrinking fraction of the total number of Black professionals today. As of 2018, The National Center for Education Statistics reports that only 9% of Black students attend HBCUs, while the number of Black students enrolling in all degree-granting postsecondary institutions has doubled in the last 50 years. Amherst College, a top liberal arts school in New England, is an example. Unlikely to be on any Black identifier lists, Amherst has been leading educational diversity efforts since the 1820s, and the class of 2024 is made up of 45% students of color. Likewise, focusing on narrowly defined black affiliations most likely overlooks the majority of Black professionals at every career level right now.

The overuse of these limiting filters has created an environment where Black talent that can be identified through association in the most obvious ways is highly engaged by recruiters, while the majority of Black talent goes under the radar. Under these circumstances it’s possible for individual companies to achieve their diversity sourcing goals, but larger societal and industry trends will show little to no improvement over time. It’s hard to see this as anything other than musical chairs.

In paradoxical fashion, the solution to our diversity problems has little to do with diversity filters. Organizations can make progress by recognizing that their practices are the problem, re-assessing the skills and qualifications for all open roles, and making those experiences more inclusive for use in search and review. Done this way, required experience — not job title— becomes a practical tool that we use to craft each and every search and screening decision with consistency and precision. Best of all, we have the ability to consider candidates from non-traditional backgrounds, and expand the ways that we think about our needs.

Expansion asks that we step outside of our bubbles to recognize that there are myriad ways of solving business problems today. Only searching for people with experiences most familiar to us overlooks a significant percentage of qualified talent with different but related experiences. In asking us to carefully consider what’s needed instead of what we already have, expansion helps create more specific searches. This clarification process sets the bar for equitable opportunity and opens the door to competitive advantage.

If sourcing and recruiting goals centered around this type of activity, there would be no reason to narrow search down with diversity keywords that overlook Black talent for mid-senior level roles. On the contrary, with a better search we would want to review each and every result, as it would be relevant to our needs. Failure to find diverse talent with an experience-based filter should be an indicator that qualification criteria is in fact not inclusive and requires further expansion. This process should be repeated until organizational needs overlap with the experiences of diverse talent. Spoiler alert: they already do. This exercise of contextual clarity is unlikely to result in compromise or “lowering the bar.”

What’s remarkable about the diversity sourcing paradox is that we’ve been so focused on attributing blame to factors outside of our control — like the talent pipeline — that we completely overlooked our own everyday practices, within reach and in dire need of change. At no point in history have we ever been able to make progress by maintaining the status quo, and the present is no exception. It’s time to shift our practices to value the underpinnings of truly diverse teams: a wider breadth of perspective, informed by different but intersecting experiences. After all, this is the currency of forward-thinking companies.

Would love to hear what you think. Please 👏 this article to share it, and follow me (Adam Cockell) on Medium! Thanks to everyone that helped me communicate these ideas, especially Carrie Simon.

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I’m a technology entrepreneur focused on correcting gaps in opportunity and equity in the workplace by empowering people on the front lines.

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Adam Cockell

Adam Cockell

I’m a technology entrepreneur focused on correcting gaps in opportunity and equity in the workplace by empowering people on the front lines.

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