March 23, 2021

Are You as Objective as You Think? How Traditional Hiring Methods Keep Us From Building More Divorce Workforces

“Why does it matter what our leadership team looks like? We hire and promote people based on their performance, not on the color of their skin.”

If you’ve ever been involved in discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace, you’ve likely encountered some variation of this protestation. Maybe you’ve even uttered it yourself.

At first glance, the logic is sound. A business exists primarily to make money. In a market economy, businesses make money by beating their competitors through better products and services. If you want to deliver the best products and services, you need the best team of employees you can assemble. Ergo, a person’s performance matters more than their demographic profile when making decisions about whom to hire and whom to promote.

But this line of thinking obscures a simple fact: You can’t divorce demographics from delivery.

The research is in. The debate is settled. More diverse teams outperform demographically monolithic ones on key metrics like revenue generation and customer satisfaction. This empirically proven state of affairs contradicts the meritocratic argument.

A company points to its all-white, all-male leadership team and says, “We just hired the best people for the job, and they all happen to look the same.” The company probably isn’t lying; the company likely believes it really did rely on purely objective measures to build its leadership team. But study after study shows the company would actually earn more revenue if its leadership were more diverse.

If more diverse teams are higher-performing teams, why is it that so few corporate workforces reflect the communities they serve, especially at the leadership level? Largely, it’s because the hiring systems we believe to be objectively meritocratic are really anything but.

The Positive Feedback Loop of Representation

Before looking at how seemingly impartial hiring methods are all too susceptible to bias, it’s important to drive home why diversity matters — especially among leadership teams.

Diversity is vital at all levels of an organization because more diverse teams have access to a broader mix of backgrounds and perspectives. That makes these teams more capable of understanding customers’ concerns, better able to innovate, and better able to compensate for one another’s blind spots.

But no matter how diverse an organization’s workforce, the company may miss out on some of the benefits of DE&I if the leadership team is racially or ethnically homogenous. For example, research from Gallup found that white workers are far more likely than Black and Hispanic workers to say their company leaders look like them. Moreover, Gallup found a strong correlation between representation and employee satisfaction: Employees were far less likely to feel positive about their jobs if there were few people of their own race or ethnicity among the leadership ranks.

Lack of representation saps employee morale and engagement, which in turn drags down productivity and performance. Conversely, strong representation makes employees feel much better about their jobs — and more willing to put in the kind of work that leads to increased innovation and revenue.

Representation also creates a kind of positive feedback loop: When there is diversity among company leaders, people are less likely to unconsciously see employees of color as less qualified for leadership roles. Thus, more employees of color will be hired and promoted, and DE&I efforts become almost self-sustaining.

It’s important to note that Asian Americans are often overlooked in DE&I conversations. While discussions around diversity often rightfully highlight discrimination against Black and Hispanic workers, the battles fought by Asian American professionals rarely get as much attention. But they should: Black and Hispanic professionals are actually more likely to receive a promotion than Asian American professionals. White professionals are 154 percent more likely than Asian Americans to hold an executive role. Despite what the harmful model minority myth might have us believe, there’s a lot of work to do when it comes to Asian American representation among company leaders.

The Meritocracy, Revealed

An all-white leadership team is rarely an intentional choice. People who insist their organizations focus on performance above all else when making hiring decisions usually believe this to be true. Generally speaking, a lack of representation is a systemic failure rather than a deliberate choice.

The standard hiring process — solicit resumes, screen candidates, maybe conduct a preemployment assessment, interview top choices, make a hire — masquerades as meritocratic. So, when we follow these steps, we really believe we’re evaluating candidates according to their abilities and not their demographics.

But it’s the “unconscious” part of “unconscious bias” that makes it so pernicious. Studies show that candidates of color are less likely to get callbacks when their resumes clearly signal their racial identities. When candidates submit the same resumes — scrubbed of racial identifiers — callback rates increase. In another famous study, candidates with Black-sounding names were 33 percent less likely than candidates with white-sounding names to receive a callback.

A resume is supposed to be an objective document, a record of a candidate’s experiences and achievements. When recruiters and hiring managers compare resumes, they’re trying to determine which candidates are better suited for a role based solely on their past employment and current skills. It’s not that recruiters and hiring managers see Black-, Asian-, or Hispanic-sounding names and consciously decide to exclude those candidates from roles. Rather, it’s that, on some unconscious level, the candidate’s racial identity creates a perception that they are less qualified than a white applicant would be.

Interviews and preemployment tests are similarly susceptible to bias. Even artificial intelligence algorithms can be biased if they’re not programmed properly.

The Meritocracy, Restored

Merit-based hiring isn’t inherently problematic. The issue, rather, is that much of what passes for merit-based hiring is deeply influenced by our unconscious biases. As a result, our workforces — especially our leadership teams — are much less representative than they could or should be.

Keeping that unconscious bias at bay is a matter of building — and adhering to — intentional processes that mitigate the influence of bias throughout the recruiting process. That’s not something you can do overnight, but you can get started by implementing a few key changes to your recruiting process today.

The first step is to use structured interviews. This is a simple alteration with potentially profound ramifications. When you use structured interviews, every candidate is asked the same questions. You might feel like that stifles the flow of conversation, and to some degree it does. But structured interviews also ensure that every candidate has the same opportunities to shine. Comparisons between candidates’ interview performances are much more meaningful — and much more objective — when you’re comparing candidates’ responses to the same questions. Plus, structured interviews are scientifically proven to be the most predictive.

Next, take stock of your tech stack. Do you have a comprehensive system in place to track new hire and promotion data, including salaries and salient demographic details? If not, you should. Simply keeping track of this data can help you identify positive and negative trends, discriminatory salary gaps, and other roadblocks on the way to representation. Plus, it becomes that much harder to ignore the importance of DE&I when you see your lack of representation reflected in cold, hard numbers.

On a final note, it’s hard to see our own unconscious biases in action, which is why it helps to hire by committee. The more people you loop into the hiring process, the less likely it is that any one person’s biases will drive the final decision. Instead, your differing perspectives can compensate for one another’s blind spots. Just make sure to invite a diverse mix of people to weigh in on the candidate. If you have an all-white, all-male hiring team, your next hire will likely be — you guessed it — a white male.

Read more in Diversity

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of