When it Comes to Diversity, Just Focus on Talent and NOT Superficial Assumptions

“We have 25 different nationalities in this building.”

“Throughout the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] we have 47 different nationalities. We are proud to say that we are like the U.N. All nationalities, numerous countries but mostly one of the most talented organizations in the region”

“Regardless of the nationalities, everyone wants to be treated with respect. I say this because we have so many nationalities for me to even count, but the thread in all of it is to be respected.”

There are just a few of the statements that I have heard from senior leaders over the past month as we talked not about diversity, but, about their workforce and the pride they have in it.

Their workforces are comprised of multiple nationalities from around the world. There is no dominant or master nationality — just worldwide talent.

Same old song, but with a different beat

Over the past few months I have noticed from afar the hand wringing from the major tech firms in the U.S. as they released their diversity numbers, particularly Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.. Some did this reluctantly, but once a few stepped up, the others begrudgingly fell in line.

At the 4A’s [Advertising Industry conference] every year, the same roundtables come forward and discuss the state of their diverse workforce. However there is one constant each year: There is not much change but the discussion continues.

I will never forget sitting on a panel many years ago and the issue of diversity came up. One of the panelist said that in his firm when diversity gets mentioned, one of the major partners was adamant that they would never lower their standards to adhere to diversity.

That statement had me fuming. I was like an eager student waving my hand to respond.

Since when does diversity have to do with lowering standards? To me, that was the problem in a nutshell. If their potential hires did not look like them, they felt that someway, somehow, they were not on the same wavelength.

It happens to the best of us

This reminded me of an interview I had years ago that when the interviewee [a CHRO] at this major company apparently did not know what I look like. I say that because after I was ushered into her office, she was standing with her back turned as she was putting a book back into the credenza. When she looked around to see me, she was startled.

I do not think it was because she did not know that I was standing there since I was announced by her administrative assistant. The Chief HR Officer really never regained her composure, and she was fumbling while trying to ask questions.

I was incredulous that this was going on. Finally, as I was answering one of her questions, she slyly glanced at her watch.  Basically, it was over and I knew this meeting with her was a complete waste of my time.

At a company function years ago I ran into a young lady that looked like me, and I could just see the talent dripping away. I gave her my card and told her to send me her resume. In turn, I gave that resume to one of our recruiters at my then company — a company that was definitely diversity challenged.

Following up with my recruiter a few weeks later, I asked her to give me an update on this young woman. My recruiter vaguely said that she was not impressed and that there was just something about her that she could not put a finger on, but her gut feeling was that she did not feel the young lady would work out.

Fast forward to today, and that young lady I referred but my company passed on is now a senior executive at Google [one of the 2 percent of diverse workers they have ]. That recruiter that passed on her is still recruiting with a manager’s title.

Recruit for talent

One of the things that I notice with recruiters and hiring managers here in the Middle East is that they have the foresight to realize that brainpower and talent is not segmented among one nationality or skin pigmentation.

They recruit from all over the world to bring expats into their organization, and what they recruit for is talent. That is the bottom line, and they have no preconceived notions about what it looks like.

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So when I hear all these firms wringing their hands over this issue, I just shake my head in disgust. Are they of the same mindset as that major partner or my former colleague who only sees talent if it looks like them?

In the Middle East, everyone has a different story. The other night at dinner in Belgrade, Serbia, there were people at the table who lived in Paris, Zurich, Amsterdam, London, Dubai, and Cairo. Everyone had a different filter, and just listening to the varied conversations makes you to sit back and appreciate the diverse thoughts and ideas.

As HR leaders, these people are at the top of their game and bringing different visions and perspectives to each topic.

As companies become more global in their reach, specifically the U.S.-based companies, this blind eye to the importance of diversity is a recipe for disaster as they look to expand their market footprint. If strategy is based on talent, how do you move into a new market when you have no one to understand that market?

I marvel at advertisement as I walk through airports throughout the world and see U.S.-based companies marketing campaigns. The problem is that the people in their ads do not look like the people working in that region. Talk about bring tone deaf, but then, this is the same industry that says each year that they are working on building a more diverse workforce.

Head of Diversity not needed

There is not a title in the Middle East region that is called Head of Diversity. Why? Because the people there are in the talent business and they hire based on talent, not on some superficial assumption as to who is the most talented.

I have yet to come across that Head of Diversity title on any job board here. But in the end, this is a business issue. Where is your strategy taking you? What market are you hoping to penetrate? Answer those questions and hire from across the globe and that title could be completely eliminated — everywhere.

Mindsets have to change, and a new level of thinking has to be approached with a completely different mindset. Not too long ago in symphony orchestras, there was no diversity. In an attempt to diversify the makeup of their orchestras, someone came up with the idea of a blind audition.

This switch to “blind” auditions can explain the 30 to 55 percent increase in the proportion of females among new orchestra hires, and an increase of 25 to 46 percent in the number of females in the orchestras overall since this “blind” audition concept was introduced back in the 1970’s.

When someone auditions behind a screen, the people judging the talent can’t see who is playing — so they’re forced to base their decision totally on talent instead of what someone looks like. What a unique concept —  hire for talent!

Keep the “blind” audition in mind

So Mr. Recruiter and Ms. Hiring Manager, I know that you can’t put up a barrier to keep you from seeing who you are interviewing, but you should think about that approach. If the both of you do your job well you can eliminate the “Diversity Officer” position and your company would be better equipped for the future of globalization.

We all need to work to hire based on talent so we do not need that diversity officer. We do it here in the Gulf region, and people everywhere could learn something from that.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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