Hiring for Diversity: From Intent to Impact

In this conversation, I spoke with Arthur Woods, an author and co-founder of the company Mathison which is on a mission to build organisations that are representative of the communities they employ and serve.

Arthur Woods is the co-founder of Mathison and the author of a great book called Hiring for Diversity: The Guide to Building an Inclusive and Equitable Organization. Arthur established the business Mathison because he envisioned a world where workforces equally represent society. I think that’s a great mission to go after as a diversity and inclusion practice. I run my diversity and inclusion practice, so that resonated with me.

We’ve got loads to talk about today: inclusivity in the labour market, how employers define diversity and inclusion and set goals, and when bias is most commonly coming up in hiring. We’ve got so much to get through.

We started with me asking Arthur if he could give me some introduction to his background, what inspired him to set up Mathison, and why is that the company’s name?

‘I grew up in a single-parent family and discovered halfway through college that I was gay. I was in the LGBTQ community and wondered how I would represent aspects of my identity, such as being in the LGBTQ community in my professional career.

In one of my very first job interviews, I overheard an interviewer using a homophobic slur. I found myself shutting down in that hiring process, and as a result, I didn’t come out for a few years in my first job. I remember distinctly that feeling of being not safe, of not being my full authentic self at work. Honestly, I remember how devastating that was and distracting. I became very excited about how we can build inclusive environments that represent society at all levels, having witnessed first-hand how much organisations were struggling with that.

My career has had this nice ebb and flow of non-profit advocacy work and the pursuit of building technology for humanity. A few years ago, we had the opportunity to launch Mathison. It was named after Alan Turing because his middle name was Mathison. As many folks know, Alan Turing was famous for helping crack the Enigma code in World War II, yet despite his enormous achievements, he faced persecution at the end of his life for being gay. I believe in a world where what makes us each unique is not a weakness but it’s a strength. We dream of a workforce that equally represents the rich diversity of society at all levels. That’s our mission at Mathison.’

What Arthur talks about is very much in alignment with my vision or mission. So, for example, when my clients speak to me about diversity, we often talk about representation. How representative the organisation is of the customer base that it serves? Or the city in which it operates and draws its talent?

We’ve had a year with lots of change in the labour market, and it’s looking even more chaotic than it did. So, I asked Arthur what he thinks the landscape offers for organisations trying to grow diversity?

‘What’s so interesting at the moment, and I think we can re-evaluate this on almost a weekly basis because it feels like the world is constantly changing, but let’s think about the events of the last two years. We’ve been in a global pandemic. We’ve witnessed first-hand in a much more visceral way the racial and, honestly, socioeconomic inequities that have faced our world since day one. But now, we’ve been brought closer to it than ever before.

Diversity has never felt more urgent for most employers. Yet now we’re facing a potential economic and market downturn. So those diversity commitments and priorities are being challenged by much of what’s happening in the broader world. It’s never felt more urgent yet, in many cases, more challenging.

We believe there’s no lack of intent or agreement around the why, but we’re in this exciting moment where employers have to start thinking about how they go from intent to impact. I believe we are in a moment now where we can move from conversation to action. Leaders are ready for that.’

I like how Arthur talks about intentions to impact. For example, when I first set up my consultancy company, one of my first engagements was to do a half-day workshop with the senior leadership team of a global travel company. Their brief to me was asking, ‘How can we move from positive intentions to positive impact?’

That kick-started a lot of the work that I’ve done. It’s part of how I’ve created my inclusive growth model due to that move from intention to impact. I asked Arthur how he thinks employers traditionally define diversity and setting goals and how does he think we can reframe this to be more inclusive of underrepresented communities that might not be on the radar?

Arthur welcomed the question saying, ‘It’s a pretty fundamental building block of this work. One of the most visceral insights from the research and our work for our book centred on how we fundamentally define diversity. We found that many leaders have looked at diversity through an optical lens based on what they believe they can see, inferring a community that someone’s in and often limiting diversity only to aspects of race and gender.

What we have seen more than ever is that there are so many different dimensions of diversity that are invisible and intersectional. Thanks to your amazing leadership Toby, it’s been wonderful to ensure that the disability and neurodivergent communities are held equally in our definition.

Older experienced workers, refugees, immigrants, the formerly incarcerated community, and many groups have been systemically left out of the equation. Many organisational policies have been written to leave them out of the equation. We wrote about twelve different unrepresented job seeker communities in the book, and any time I present the model or the definition, one of the first things I call out is that this taxonomy will be expanded even more in the next ten years.

I think we’re going to see potentially socioeconomic diversity, religious diversity — many different aspects brought into the equation. For me, it’s a reminder that there is always another community to understand better. There’s always another barrier to internalise and come to terms with. As practitioners in this work, our awareness and advocacy will constantly expand. We’re permanent students in the work.’

Arthur is correct. It’s continuous work. Diversity and inclusion is not a project; it doesn’t have a beginning and an end. It’s a way of being, and it’s a way of successfully operating a business.

I often describe to my clients that diversity is a bit like this iceberg where you can see 10% of the iceberg above the water line. Those are our visible characteristics. So, it could be our ethnicity, physical or visible disabilities, and things like that, but then there’s so much that makes us different and unique hidden under the water line. These could be whether we’re part of the LGBT community or even whether we’re introverts or extroverts. So many of my clients have told me they’ve noticed that extroverts are rising to the top of the organisation and that we need to create safe spaces for introverts to contribute and speak up.

Arthur agreed. ‘Part of the danger of having this kind of professional archetype, which has been historically defined, the professional success, has created a very homogenous persona of what it means to be successful in work. That has largely been built around the extroverted white male straight, type-A leader. We made that persona, and society has reinforced it. Hollywood reinforced it. It’s no surprise that most executives are white straight men.

It’s a wonderful time in the world where we’re embracing uniqueness and diversity and celebrating the fact that we have to have representation in all aspects of work. What it means to be a professional in the historical sense is now disrupted by hopefully many different personas, some of which are introverts. I think that’s a wonderful thing to bring to the forefront.’

Since Arthur wrote the book Hiring for Diversity, we can’t not talk about bias within the hiring process. I asked him where he sees bias often arising in the hiring process and how employers might meaningfully address this?

‘If we think about the number of steps and decision points throughout the hiring process and visually map it out, it becomes clear that so many different decision points involve gut, intuition and attributing value or not attributing value. We’ve written about the fact that there are over 180 biases and growing, so there’s essentially a bias for every decision point. It makes us think about how subjective, and potentially unstructured many of these decisions are.

We found some critical points where bias can show up. One is around how we scope the job to begin with and how we define the role requirements. One of the things that happens quite often is we envision the perfect candidate, again, this gets back to this persona, and we start to think how the perfect candidate would have all these credentials and all these pre-vetted requirements and would come from the ideal school. Then, suddenly, we realise we’ve layered in several requirements that may have nothing to do with someone’s success on the job but how we’ve layered these in. Then we’ve limited our pool to a relatively homogenous community that we can recruit from.

This is an area where, again, bias can show up because we’re not thinking holistically about lived experiences and diversity of someone’s background that might show up in very different ways from a credential standpoint. That’s an area where we find there’s a ton that we need to do.

The other piece that we discovered is around the interview process. So, the interview process is where we spend really the majority of our time with candidates. It’s usually where we make the decision, and for many leaders, it represents the least structured part of the hiring process because they make up interviews as they go. In many cases, they don’t know what they’re going to ask a candidate as they walk into that interview. We really discovered that we have to slow down and be structured in the way that we interview. We need to be intentional, and ideally, we need to follow a rubric so that we’re interviewing consistently.’

The things Arthur has cited are such practical, sensible stuff. It’s about planning, organising, going in prepared, trying to make things as objective as possible and not relying on our subjective biases. As we coast through the day, we use our system one thinking, which is where we go with our intuition and our gut reactions rather than think about things in a much more objective fashion.

‘Absolutely. If we have a brain, we have bias. As we all know, we’re making so many decisions every single day. Our brains can only consciously process a fraction of those decisions based on the pure amount of information that we’re processing.

I think there’s been a reputation of bias as though it’s this thing we can rid ourselves of, and the truth is we will just constantly make involuntary decisions. But if we can slow down and be structured and thoughtful and intentional, it does mean that we’re hopefully making decisions in a much more equitable way.’

A lot of my clients talk to me about attracting and sourcing talent, so they say things like, ‘We’re so focused on getting diversity in the organisation, but the talent pool is just not very diverse.’ It might be that they are operating in an industry where there perhaps is a bit of lack of diversity. For example, a technology client might say that it’s a very kind of male-skewed industry, and there are not enough women to recruit. I find this a limiting mindset because I know for a fact that that talent is out there, and it is available.

I asked Arthur how employers should rethink strategic and sustainable ways to expand their diverse sourcing, particularly given the limited amount of time and capacity that hiring managers are often facing at the same time?

‘The first piece is really to become holistic and intentional about how we are defining diversity. First and foremost, let’s have that intentional conversation with our teams about the different under-represented communities we can possibly source from and recruit. Let’s start there because that’s foundational. Next, get our whole community at the organisation involved in this process. If we think about the collective network of everyone in our organisation in terms of their sourcing and their reach, their referrals, we already have a collective wider reach within our existing community. We need to activate that and create mutual ownership.

Third is that we see that there are thousands in community organisations. Many networks that we can tap into. Workforce development agencies, membership organisations and universities that we can build reciprocal partnerships with. These can become pipelines. It all starts, though, with us expanding how we look at what it means to be qualified for a job. If we continue to just recruit from this homogenous pool where these requirements are so exorbitant that no one from a previous lived experience or under-represented community could possibly qualify, we’re going to continue to have a very homogenous workforce. But if we’re beginning to think about transferable skills and ways that people can learn on the job, and maybe have come from somewhat of an unconventional background but gain a lot of that professional experience in the job itself, that’s when we start to see the ability to cast a much wider net.’

Arthur reminded me of a time when I was working at the BBC when I was working with a hiring manager who needed to hire a software engineer. We went through his job description, which by the way, was about six pages long to begin with, so way too long. As Arthur has said, there was a fixed idea about who should be a suitable fit for that role. The first thing was we had to reduce the job description down from six pages to one page.

At the top of his list, he was like, ‘I need somebody who’s like a brilliant JavaScript developer.’ And I challenged him on that, and I said, ‘Is that really what you’re looking for?’ After a bit of kind of to-ing and fro-ing, he said, ‘Actually, what I need to somebody who is a quick learner because the technology is changing so quickly. I need somebody who can learn programming languages really fast.’ That meant we changed the recruitment process to focus on somebody’s propensity to learn.

They unlocked so much potential in our talent pipeline at the time because we were now looking for somebody different. We weren’t looking for somebody who had, say, more of a traditional background and experience in JavaScript, but we were looking for somebody’s ability to learn quickly and be agile and flexible and things like that.

I asked Arthur who he thinks has typically been driving the diversity and inclusion agenda in businesses. I also wondered how we could begin to engage more people and hiring managers in playing a critical role in hiring for diversity?

‘What excites me right now is that to date, this conversation in many organisations has been driven by the people team, the HR team. In some cases, there have been dedicated heads of diversity, but the biggest thing we see that has to happen and that we really try to leave as the final call to action in our book was to have collective ownership and responsibility of increasing diversity and equity inclusion across the organisation. If this work continues to only be led and owned by one or two select people in an organisation, it really won’t be sustainable.

What we’ve seen happen is that heads of diversity will oftentimes be told by their broader organisation, ‘Hey, you need to go figure this out for us, go and prove our diversity. And you’re not going to be given any resources, any support, any capacity.’

It’s a fairly impossible task because if we think about what really has to happen to improve our diversity and equity inclusion, it is that we have to change our systems. We have to change the mindset of our teams, and we have to change the behaviour of our collective communities. And that is not something that any one individual by themselves can do. It really takes everyone.

The organisations that I get most excited about when we’re working are the ones that have said, ‘We’re in this together. It’s a collective action. It will take everyone’s perspective. It won’t happen overnight. Our people team and our DEI leaders are the catalysts for the collective ownership that will be across the organisation. That is really where this work becomes a movement inside an organisation when we’re all in it together. We all do it, advance it together, and you know, it’s sustainable.

It becomes so much more enjoyable when we’re all in it together and it is a collective action. I think this work shouldn’t create stress and frustration, but sadly it has for many, and that’s what really has to change.’

The question that I ask everybody when they come on this podcast, and I didn’t let Arthur off the hook on this one, is ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘I love the question. Inclusive growth for me is constantly being open and inquisitive and curious about gaining new perspectives and understanding other people’s lived experiences and understanding other people’s systemic barriers that they’ve faced. I think the more that we as leaders are just constantly asking that question and hearing different perspectives, I think we really gain empathy for other challenges that individuals have faced since the beginning. I think that makes us much more equipped to address those challenges in the way that we operate and the way that we lead. And thank you, Toby. Thank you for all the work that you lead. It’s such an inspiration.’

I would highly recommend to the person listening to us right now that they go and get Arthur’s book, Hiring for Diversity. To learn more about his work, follow him or reach out for further information, do visit the company website mathison.io. Mathison offers software that supports organisations in their diversity recruiting, sourcing, reducing bias in their systems, and measuring and tracking their progress.

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Toby Mildon

Toby Mildon

Diversity & Inclusion Architect. I like psychology, tech, ideas, design and food (esp. curry). Live with SMA.