Are Diversity Quotas Becoming the New Norm?

Posted by VERCIDA Consulting on Oct 29, 2018 2:59:43 PM
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As I travel the world advising leaders of some of the world’s biggest global enterprises on the prevails of unconscious bias and the principles of inclusive leadership, I have, over the last few years or so, noticed an interesting trend, which is often posed to me as a question: what are my thoughts on diversity targets vs. quotas? Now, if I’d been given a Pound, Dollar, or Indian Rupee every time I was asked this question, I’d be a very rich man by now. 

And, as I stated to a client over dinner last week, we at VERCIDA Consulting have a philosophy of sharing, so, here are my views. I’ve never really been a fan of diversity quotas in hiring. Who wants to feel that they have been given a job partly due to their gender, ethnicity, background or any other factor other than talent and merit? Certainly not me. And isn’t it better that we address the systemic biases with our hiring processes, rather than resort to a crude instrument of change, such as a diversity quota? Maybe quotas are a recognition of failure to attract and hire diverse talent by other means, and this tool is all business have left?

There’s another problem with diversity quotas, and it’s one of perception, which is, amongst many global business employees, beginning to create a backlash effect. We witnessed this in 2017 by the case of James Damore, the ex-Google employee who accused the company of operating within, what he called an ‘Ideological Echo Chamber’, and that Google’s target driven culture has started to create a sense of exclusion for others (read: straight white men).

Now I should point out here, that Damore’s basic argument – that women are underrepresented in the tech industry is not because they face bias and discrimination in the workplace, but because of inherent psychological differences between men and women – is fundamentally flawed. Without question women, and other groups, experience both conscious and unconscious bias. And of course, biases extend way beyond tech, and impacts all industries.

Biased based hiring

As a reminder, some of the most common types of biases in the hiring process include:

  • Affinity bias: The tendency to hire people who are like us. Often called the ‘mini-me’ effect, affinity bias plays out when people are similar to us – culture, background, personality – or reminds us of someone we like.
  • Halo / horns effective: This occurs when we find one attribute really attractive in a job candidate which then colours our view of the candidate’s total skills and competencies. In his seminal work on biases, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman highlights the halo effect as a good name for a common bias.
  • Status quo bias: A bias towards the familiar and a preference for things to stay the same. In a recruitment context, inertia plays a key role when hiring managers and recruiters opt for candidates that are similar to the types of people already working in the organisation.
  • Representative heuristic: A classic cognitive bias, this occurs when a candidate is representative of (looks like, sounds like) the population they are being recruited into.

Hence, hiring decisions, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell, are ‘thin sliced’ decisions. That this, they are decisions which are driven by our automatic and instinctual thoughts. What Kahnaman refers to as ‘fast thinking’ – biased thinking.

Mitigating bias through blind recruitment

In an effort to reduce fast thinking – biases – with the hiring process, many global businesses such as EY, Viacom and HBSC have adopted the practice of ‘blind decision-making’; removing names, gender, university and other such ‘subjective’ information that leads to bias judgements. Think the business equivalent of The Voice, where the judges literally have their backs turned to subjective information such as appearance, and are thus forced to make their initial decision to include in their team, one based on perceptions of talent.

Blind recruitment has shown to have some success. As quoted in a recent Fast Company article, Azmat Mohammed, Director General of the British Institute of Recruiters, says that companies who initiate blind recruitment practices virtually always see a more diverse workforce. This ‘behavioural design tool’ is now supported by various AI programmes such as GapJumpers and Unitive. In a recent Forbes magazine article John Feldmann states that GapJumpers ‘increases the chances of minority and female applicants being offered a first-round job interview by around 40%’. The technology works! (At least at the first-round selection stage, I should add).

From blind recruitment to diverse short-lists: Adopting the ‘Rooney Rule’

But in recent months, we have seen a ramping up of efforts. For instance, the global accountancy firm PwC has announced that it will now ban all-male shortlists for jobs in the UK, in an attempt to increase the number of women in senior roles at the firm – in essence the formal introduction of diversity quotas. The BBC has followed this move, by banning all-white shortlists for all middle and senior-ranking posts, in an effort to increase its hiring of ethnic minority employees. The BBC has also set a target of having at least two people from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds by 2020, according to its career progression and culture report. What we are witnessing across many UK business is a mainstreaming of the ‘Rooney Rule’, an approach used in the US by the National Football League, that requires teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for the role of head coach in particular.

PwC is supporting their own efforts, by also planning to ban all-male interview panels. Something which I would support as this helps to mitigate Stereotype Threat. But back to the question of diversity quotas. Following these recent announcements, HR Grapevine conducted a poll, asking if these sorts of interventions would lead to tokenism in hiring. 80 per cent of respondents suggested it would. But let’s consider another piece of data from the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report: “Given the continued widening of the economic gender gap, it will now not be closed for another 217 years”. 217 YEARS…! So, on reflection, and within this context, should the PwC / BBC model of banning all-male / all-white shortlists be re-evaluated? Can we really wait 217 YEARS to close the economic gender gap (which is re-enforced by the employment positions that men and women hold)? Shouldn’t we support businesses who look for radical solution to reducing gender, and race inequality? (We don’t have a figure for reducing the race gap, but, for sure, it’d be equally stark).

Maybe it’s time for me to re-assess my own thoughts on diversity quotas. As long as they are used as one tool in a wider box of levers and pullers, perhaps, if used as a temporary measure to even out the talent playing field, they should be supported.

From targets to system re-design

So, whilst we may begin to support the kind of positive action we are seeing being adopted by organisations such as the BBC and PwC, on their own, they will run the risk of being used as a diversity sticking plaster. One that covers over systemic and in-grained biases. In order to avoid these perceptions, organisations should draw on the principles of behaviourial science, as tools for system re-design. Here are my 6 things organisations can do to assist with bias removal within hiring;

  1. Job design: Review job descriptions and person specifications for bias language. Naturalising bias using language proofing tools such as Textio or Unitive is likely to increase applications from diverse candidates.
  2. Job adverts: Ensure your recruitment material depicts a wide range of social groups. Diverse images together with publicly stating your commitment to diversity and inclusion in job adverts is more likely to ‘nudge’ minority job seekers to apply for the role.
  3. Candidate attraction and search: Explicitly set out your expectations on diverse short-listing and set diversity targets through your supply chain – recruitment agencies and search companies. Using a ‘comply or explain’ model sets clear expectations to suppliers on the benefits of meeting your requirements as well as possible consequences of not meeting these. As stressed by Rohit Shah, a Senior Director with Investigo, the award-winning recruitment company; “The days where a recruiter can ignore diversity in the hiring process are long gone. Our job at Investigo is to provide the best possible candidates to our clients. And today that means factoring in client expectations on diversity and inclusion. It’s a move we welcome”.
  4. Shortlisting: Introduce ‘blind’ decision-making in shortlisting – removing personal information including name, university, hobbies and interests. Apps such as blendoor obscures the names and photos of candidates in order to combat unconscious bias and facilitate diverse recruiting in tech companies. Others apps include GapJumpers.
  5. Interviewing: Ensure the interview panel is visibly diverse – gender, ethnicity and age, for instance.  Having a diverse interview panel sends a positive signal to the candidate that the company values diversity and that there are role models within the organisation that they can relate to. Also, use a scoring system and aggregating scores before the de-briefing. Using a scoring system and aggregating candidate scores before the final candidate de-brief helps to mitigate biases by focusing on evidenced-based information.
  6. De-briefing: Introduce a ‘devil’s advocate’ in the process. Using a devil’s advocate methodology helps assessors and hiring managers to make fairer decisions. Pushing for evidence helps to reduce bias playing out in the final decision.

Written by Dan Robertson, Director of

Dan is highly respected as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity & inclusion management, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership.

Contact Dan: / +44 7946 466 18

Topics: Diversity & Inclusion, Business, Unconscious Bias, VERCIDA Consulting

VERCIDA Group is a global inclusion consultancy and talent attraction organisation. We specialise in diversity onboarding, leadership development programmes, and creating inclusive work cultures. VERCIDA group consists of and VERCIDA Consulting

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