Following established techniques and methodologies can achieve efficiencies, assure consistency and produce positive outcomes. But sometimes we need to challenge our historic approach, analyze the rationale behind certain standards and methodologies, determine whether those rationales are still viable, and make changes as appropriate. Organizations facing a talent shortage and those looking to diversify the workplace may now be at such an inflection point.
Diversity Starts with Hiring Decisions
Hiring processes and decisions are the cornerstone of any initiative to diversify a workforce. President Lyndon Johnson recognized this nearly 60 years ago when he issued Executive Order 11246, which continues to prohibit federal government contractors from discriminating in employment decisions based on certain protected characteristics and requires them to take affirmative action in their hiring and promotion decisions, to ensure the provision of equal employment opportunities. Hiring also has been the focus of more recent government initiatives to achieve equal employment opportunity, as exemplified by the launch one year ago of a “Hiring Initiative to Reimagine Equity (HIRE)” by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in partnership with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) as part of its Equity Action Plan to advance racial equity and support for underserved communities. If you do not bring a diverse group in the door, then there can be no diversity in any other aspect of the organization’s workforce.
Conventional Wisdom and Hiring Criteria
Educational background, training certifications and past employment history have long been our primary selection criteria when reviewing job candidates. We often use these factors as a proxy for competence or even of superior ability, presuming that:
- college-level education equates to higher intellect than those with a high school diploma;
- a degree from a selective college or university indicates an even higher level of intelligence and accomplishment;
- courses of study and advanced degrees from universities reflect specialized knowledge, intellectual rigor and commitment;
- training certificates prove interest in a particular specialty;
- gaps in employment are red flags of poor past work performance or personal issues that encroach on commitment to the work; and
- prior industry experience offers better training than work in other fields.
Each of these are stereotypes – categorical assumptions, based on preconceived notions. Stereotyping is a technique that we use to filter and organize the universe of data we may encounter. In the abstract stereotyping is neither good nor bad, but there are exceptions to every stereotype, and some may be flat out wrong or predicated on inappropriate, discriminatory assumptions. Relying too heavily on stereotypes in our hiring criteria and processes can lead us to overlook desirable candidates.
Ask “What If”
Sometimes particular degrees, training or experience is critical to performing a particular job. Mere interest in law or medicine, for example, or having taken some courses in those subjects, will not qualify an individual to receive certification from professional licensing boards that are necessary to practice in those fields.
Often, though, there is opportunity to explore other considerations.
- What if a candidate for a sales position did not attend or complete college because that candidate needed to transition more immediately into the workplace to help support the candidate’s family? If the candidate has proven work history, should the lack of a degree be an exclusionary factor? And even if the candidate does not have proven work history, if it is an entry-level job why is a college degree required? Is there any other way in which the candidate can demonstrate ability and potential?
- What if a candidate’s family is legacy at a prestigious academic institution and the candidate was accepted largely on the coattails of past relatives’ achievements? Is that candidate more qualified than someone who bootstrapped their way through a state university and graduated in the middle or upper range of the class?
- What if a candidate had to step out of the workforce due to a serious health condition that a prior employer could not or would not accommodate, and which has now been fully resolved? Does a prior health issue mean the candidate can never be a productive, hardworking contributor to the workplace?
- What if the candidate chose to leave the workplace for a period of time due to caregiving responsibilities? Are there any skills or values that, while perhaps uncompensated, the candidate might have gained during that period that would be relevant to the position for which the candidate has applied?
- What if a candidate was fired along with most of the division in a major restructuring, and the termination coincided with a serious economic downturn? Or a former employer relocated its operations across the country and the candidate had family obligations that precluded moving with the former employer? Are either of those circumstances a negative reflection on the candidate’s skills and experience?
Many hiring managers might reconsider their preconceived assumptions in those circumstances, but if screening criteria are set too rigidly they can filter out candidates at the application stage, before they would ever have the opportunity to meet with a hiring manager.
Diversity Implications of Rigid Screening Criteria
Testimony provided at the EEOC’s HIRE roundtables reflect the implications for a diverse workforce when baseline hiring criteria are too rigid. Among those screened out of the workforce based on a period of unemployment, for example, are:
- workers who were pregnant or had caregiving responsibilities at some point;
- disproportionately people of color; and
- older workers who may have been impacted by past layoffs.
Similarly, degree requirements or preferences based on academic institutions attended can disproportionately screen out people of color and certain socioeconomic groups.
Recognizing those outcomes, the EEOC and OFCCP are actively promoting skills-based hiring and encouraging employers to consider alternative credentials for job candidates. Last year, the state of Maryland announced that it would eliminate a four-year college degree as a job requirement for thousands of state jobs, and consider workers skilled through alternative routes, including apprenticeships and certification programs. In making the announcement, the state reported that nearly half of the workers in Maryland are skilled through these alternative measures.
Maintaining High Standards
Reconsidering historic job criteria means applying different measures of skills and credentials and recognizing certain benchmark indicators of high achievement are not necessarily a proxy for identifying superior talent. It does not mean an employer has to lower its standards.
I graduated from a regional law school, and subsequently completed an advanced law degree at an ivy league school. The institutions I attended trained me on the law from different perspectives, each of which I found to be incredibly valuable. I was no greater a scholar after graduating with my ivy league LLM than I was five years earlier when I earned my law degree. Yet even now, 23 years after earning that second degree and notwithstanding many years working in various capacities, people will call out the ivy league degree on my bio as the hallmark measure of my accomplishment. I am grateful for any doors that degree helps open, but I spent enough years having to prove myself without the stellar credential to attest that talent comes in all forms and from a variety of places. As talent pools dwindle, broadening the net to reconsider hiring criteria opens the door to more candidates and opens the potential to develop a more diverse workforce.
By Tracey I. Levy