In early 2018, I signed onto what was then called the CEO Action Pledge on Diversity and Inclusion, joining about 120 other CEOs around the country (the number is now approaching 2000) in committing to promoting equity and inclusion at Children’s Minnesota. Two years later, after the murder of George Floyd and the accompanying nationwide protests, many companies – including major employers in Minnesota – have gone beyond that to make specific pledges around increasing the diversity of their workforces and especially their leadership teams. Perhaps not surprisingly, there has been some pushback. Ever since the term affirmative action was first introduced in the early 1960s, there has been criticism of it, with arguments generally falling into two categories: that it is unfair to the majority group and amounts to reverse discrimination, and that hiring decisions should be based entirely on merit.
While I don’t agree with the unfairness argument, I understand it. I have personally been in the situation where someone might have very similar qualifications to mine for a particular role, and I was not selected because the “tiebreaker” was race or sex. In situations like that, I know I will lose out every time. I can intellectualize the fact that for the vast majority of my life I have been the beneficiary of those tiebreaker considerations, and that the qualifications I have are in part the result of the accumulated effects of generations of that advantage in opportunities that my ancestors have had. But if I am honest, I have to admit that while in the end I am convinced that is correct, it doesn’t feel great when it happens.
As to the second argument, I couldn’t agree more that hiring decisions should be based entirely on finding the best person for the job. And that is completely consistent with efforts to advance diversity and inclusion in our leadership teams and our workforce as a whole. To assume otherwise – that increasing diversity is somehow antithetical to hiring based on merit – is in itself racist. When our executive leadership team was all white, white people weren’t asking if any of them got their position based on their color.
The first step in hiring the most qualified people is finding the most qualified applicant pool. Traditional hiring and recruitment practices tend to limit the number of people identified, yielding a homogenous group of candidates and risking missing out on a good deal of potential talent. The university I attended was, until 1969, all male, and nearly all white. How could they claim to have the best and the brightest minds in the country when they only considered applications from at most one-third of the potential students out there? (Michelle Obama, a fellow alum, is a great example of the kind of talented individual that would never have been on the radar screen in the earlier era.) Casting a wide net, using a recruitment strategy that intentionally looks beyond the “usual suspects,” results in a candidate pool that is both more diverse and more likely to include those most qualified for the job. For a large employer like us, that includes recruiting at schools serving a broader range of students (such as historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs), or job fairs or Web sites geared toward more diverse job-seekers, such as People of Color Careers. While this takes more work than traditional approaches, a hiring manager should not be satisfied unless the candidate pool is sufficiently diverse.
As an aside, is anyone else bothered by how we misuse the term “diverse”? The word is often used to refer to someone who is from an underrepresented group, as in “Dr. X is a diverse candidate.” An individual cannot be diverse! By definition, diverse refers to a group. My suspicion is that people (mostly white) who are still uncomfortable talking frankly about bias have adopted “diverse” as a euphemism. It’s OK to say “Dr. X is LGBTQ” or “Dr. X is Native American.”
OK, anyway, so after identifying a diverse group of candidates, the next step in hiring the best person for the job means carefully considering what it takes to be the best for the job. One must think of any hire both as an individual and as part of a team. When evaluating an individual, for the sake of ease and efficiency, we often rely on easy-to-measure indicators like grades, test scores, or specific prior positions held. But how meaningful are they? The research on how well IQ tests or grades predict job performance is complex, but to the extent there is a correlation, that correlation diminishes substantially when accounting for other factors. More importantly, we need to be thoughtful about what is required to do a job successfully. For decades, medical students were selected primarily for their ability to memorize large amounts of information and do well on tests. In an Internet era when anyone with two thumbs can find the differential diagnosis of any imaginable symptom on their phone, the ability to sift information critically, and communicate effectively and with empathy and compassion are probably better predictors of a good physician than organic chemistry grades. To be clear, this is not about lowering standards. It is about ensuring we use the most appropriate standards to identify who is most likely to succeed at a particular job. It is about questioning the “usual” standards that may not only be poor markers of job success, but may have the unintended consequence of excluding individuals who may be as or even more likely to succeed.
In addition to a candidate’s individual qualifications, in most instances we are hiring someone to be part of team. This raises the question of who is going to best contribute to making that team successful. A growing body of research has shown that more diverse teams have higher performance. Teams with more diverse members – including diversity of background, experience, perspective, and style, as well as specifically racial, ethnic, and gender diversity – are more likely to focus on facts, process those facts more carefully, and be more innovative. In healthcare specifically, diverse patient populations are better served by more diverse care teams. Selecting the best candidate for the job, then, involves not only establishing the appropriate standards for individual success, but accounting for the current make-up of a team and seeking to increase the diversity of that team to promote group success.
After casting a wide net and defining the desired characteristics, the final step is creating an equitable selection process. Everyone has inherent biases; the selection process must ensure that these are minimized. For years, symphony orchestras in the US were nearly exclusively male. After adopting blind auditions (with musicians performing behind a screen) starting in the 1970s, the proportion of female musicians rose dramatically. (While the evidence supporting the effect of blinding has been criticized, there is no disagreement that gender diversity in classical music has increased, with no sacrifice of quality.) Blinded evaluations are not always feasible – at Children’s Minnesota, our approach to addressing bias includes ensuring that the interview panel for leaders is itself diverse.
These strategies work. Since signing on to the CEO Action Pledge, we have made progress in diversifying our leadership. Both the top Executive Leadership Team and the larger Strategic Leadership Team are 60% women and 30% BIPOC. (I acknowledge there are other dimensions of diversity. These are simply the dimensions we have focused on primarily so far, and for which we have the best data.) And, I can say that they are the most effective and talented leadership teams I have ever worked with. I have and always will pick the best person for the job; no one on my team has ever been hired because of their color. But without those intentional efforts in recruitment and hiring, some of these amazing people might never have made their way here, and Children’s Minnesota would be the worse for it.