Your stereotype of star employees is wrong

We humans are naturally drawn to people similar to us. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Nor does it mean that you are racist, ableist, ageist, or any other –ist. It just means you are human. We like people who “get” us; who laugh at our jokes; who share background experiences; who think about the world in a way that supports our own beliefs. In short we like people who can act as an extension of ourselves. And this draw is powerful; it is innate and unconscious, and it pervades all our relationships and has a heavy influence on who we choose to hire.

The diversity uphill battle

Of course, this innate human tendency towards sameness makes diversity an uphill battle. HRDs/recruiters may recognize the importance of diversity, while unconsciously discounting candidates who are not similar to them. Thinking that someone “just isn’t a good culture fit” is often a euphemism for thinking they are too different than you. All this drive towards sameness (homogeneity if you’re fancy), means that despite all the best marketing around the importance of diversity, staff makeup tends to evolve very slowly.

Of course, we all know lack of diversity makes businesses weaker. McKinsey & Company’s research shows that organizations with greater levels of diversity perform markedly better. This has been known for many years, but I believe that the increased use of algorithms in recent years has highlighted how pervasive bias is in society, which has led to an increased focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) outcomes.

Be prepared to get uncomfortable

As we think more critically about diversity and how to encourage it, we must also acknowledge that it can be personally uncomfortable. You have to become aware of your own innate draw towards people similar to you, and actively seek to get outside that comfort zone. Instead of hiring people who are carbon copies of ourselves, we need to hire people who can contribute new and different ways of thinking; who can challenge us; who can help us innovate in new and exciting ways.

Diversity is not just race:

When people think about diversity, they tend to think about race. But there are many types of diverse candidates. And in this economy, when qualified workers are in short supply, there is more reason than ever to consider them.

Here are three characteristics often overlooked in hiring:

1) Neurodiversity

Eighty-five percent of college graduates affected by autism were unemployed in 2019, compared to the current national unemployment rate of 3.6 percent. While neurodiversity most commonly refers to Autism Spectrum Disorders, it also includes attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other learning disabilities. But there is growing awareness of the strengths of neurodiverse candidates, which can include pattern recognition, memory, and mathematics. And while they may require accommodations on the job, such as headphones to block out external stimuli, organizations are finding their unique skills to be highly valuable, translating into gains in productivity, quality, and innovation (and even greater benefits to culture). One managing director of a company with a large neurodiversity program says that no other initiative in his company delivers benefits at so many levels.

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2) Criminal Backgrounds

Candidates with criminal backgrounds are often screened out immediately. However, nearly a third of Americans have been arrested at least once, and by age 35, 64% of unemployed men have been arrested, according to a RAND Corporation study. On top of this, minorities are even more likely to have been arrested. And yet, risk of committing additional offenses drops as time passes, and many people who have been out of work are extremely eager to work hard in a new role and may stay on board a long time. For example, a recent study found no relationship between criminal record and performance in a customer service population. Other studies have found relationships in some circumstances, as well as lower performance among those with criminal records. While the research is complex, it is clear that in many or even most cases, those with criminal backgrounds can reasonably be considered for open roles, and there is no need to systematically eliminate all of them.

3) Disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of a candidate’s disability, making it unlawful to refuse to hire due to disability or a request for a reasonable accommodation. But since there is no one disability, but many, it is difficult to develop a specific plan for how to stop disability discrimination. So, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, organizations need to ensure they have clear and easy ways for candidates to get accommodations in the hiring process as well as on the job. Often, simple accommodations do the trick, and allow you to reap the benefits a talented candidate can bring. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has recently released helpful guidance on the topic.

In these times of candidate scarcity, it behooves organizations to think more broadly about how to expand candidate pools. At the same time, growing awareness of the importance of diversity and better ability to root out bias is helping leading companies increase staffing levels AND create more diverse organizations.

While the pandemic led to the staffing shortage, in its wake we can work together to create more equitable and inclusive workplaces, while also increasing our ability to meet production demands.

Eric Sydell, PhD, is an industrial-organizational psychologist, seasoned entrepreneur, and consultant with more than two decades' experience working in the recruiting technology and staffing industries. He currently serves as executive vice president of innovation at Modern Hire. Sydell is the co-author of new book Decoding Talent: How AI and Big Data Can Solve Your Company’s People Puzzle.

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