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Obstacles to Diversity as Talent

Irving Buchen, Ph.D
Contributor: Irving Buchen, Ph.D
Posted: 07/29/2012

We may have sold diversity short, especially as a version of talent. Largely responsible for that is its somewhat coercive origins, the appearance of favoritism, and the various personnel dislocations that followed in its wake. But a case can be made to converge diversity and talent recruitment.

The strongest argument is the familiar and powerful claim that the diverse composition of the American workforce is largely responsible for its innovative achievements. Indeed, no talent recruitment program that ignored or slighted such a unique contribution of diversity could enjoy sustained support. Similarly, bringing the diversity of difference to team composition has enhanced significantly the collaborative performance of team talent. The ability to think in terms of alternatives and thus apply the diversity principle of multiplicity has been equally critical. Finally, the degree to which diversity position companies to be of a piece with their diverse global markets will determine their success in a global economy.

In short, it is time to rescue diversity from the periphery and to integrate and make it part of the mainstream of talent recruitment. By doing so, we would bring new vigor and variety to that search process. In particular, we would be claiming the following:

  • Diversity is a talent in its own right.
  • It is a multiplier of differences.
  • It encourages and structures multiple perspectives.
  • It imparts range to the generation of alterative systems.
  • It enjoys a symbiotic relationship with innovation.

Given such benefits, diversity and talent recruitment need to become talent partners.

The second task is the maintenance of a diverse organization, not as act of compliance but of vision. But that is no easy task. A classic story and ritual about hiring practices at Oxford and Cambridge for overseas assignments in the early 20th century may be illustrative.

Favoring only certain colleges, and only those graduates taking firsts in classics, recruiters for rubber plantations in Malaysia concluded, "Of course they will fit in!" Sometimes icing on the cake would take the form of an accompanying wife from a select finishing school that would equally fit in.

To many of us today, this appears pretentious and self-serving. There is no mention of knowledge of rubber extraction, how to run a plantation spanning many miles, and overseeing hundreds of native workers and their families. The only concern is sharing pitchers of gin and tonic in the evening and weekends. And yet for all that it worked: quotas were met, the rubber was extracted and shipped out, and a fragile society sustained and maintained 6,000 miles from Oxbridge.

Of course before leaving self -righteously this self indulgent practice, we should admit the degree to which fitting-in still rules; and the preference for sameness still dominates hiring. Thus we talk often about the chemistry of an appointment, how it matches and enhances the personalities of those already there; won’t miss a beat because already up to speed; mirrors the work of the unit; and is not thin skinned and can tolerate sometimes caustic exchanges. In short, fitting in still rules.

Nor should that be so surprising. There is a profound need to belong, to be part of the group, not be an odd ball—to be "at home". But company cultures are often demanding, even coercive, and it does not take too much to mute differences so as to belong. It takes action to change the composition of the workplace. Here are a few quick correctives.

Stop recruiting:

1. From the same schools.
2. From the same parts of the country.
3. From the same cohorts and sociological sectors.
4. Only MBAs.
5. Only US citizens

Above all, use virtual technology to import diverse talent no matter how occasionally and temporarily to enrich problem solving and extend the innovative reach of teams. Diverse companies are talented companies; and talented companies are diverse companies. But only if they reside at the intersect.

Irving Buchen, Ph.D
Contributor: Irving Buchen, Ph.D
Posted: 07/29/2012