Here’s a good question: “We want our company to be more representative but we’re afraid that having targets will cause tokenism? How do we ensure that the people we hire are qualified for the job while at the same time ensure that we’re drawing from a more diverse pool of candidates?”

The crux of this problem is usually visualized at the hiring interview and goes like this:

“Two candidates are shortlisted for the job: one white candidate whose qualifications are perfect and one black candidate whose qualifications are slightly less suitable.

Diversity targets are going to force the company to hire the black candidate despite the white candidate’s superior qualifications and suitability.”

There are 2 major assumptions in that scenario:

  1. The process of hiring happens at the interview
  2. Every job requires the perfect candidate

Neither is true.

Hiring is a long process driven by policy that starts with how a company sells itself to prospective candidates and attracts interest from qualified individuals. There are a range of steps that come before a decision in a manager’s office. If the scenario above is actually happening in your company, then you have more problems than “diversity targets”.

There are no jobs that require the perfect candidate. There is no such thing as the perfect candidate. There will always be a degree of awkward fit and it is up to the candidate and the company (mainly the company) to figure out how to mitigate problems and amplify strengths. This is true of all hiring.

But isn’t any form of affirmative action a kind of reverse racism, you might ask? This reservation is based on 2 wrong ideas:

  1. That our job market is a level playing field
  2. That affirmative action is the same as job discrimination.

If you look at the representativity of almost any workforce, you’ll see that white men make up a disproportionate share of jobs, despite being a minority in society and despite ample qualified individuals from other groups. Job discrimination is grounded in exclusion, but affirmative action is an effort to overcome systemic exclusion. Until our society is a genuinely level playing, we have to work to correct the unfair representativity of excluded groups.

Tokenism does happen, but it happens when companies treat diversity as a checklist: simply trying to fill seats at the boardroom table or make their annual staff photo more “representative” of their community. Frankly, if this is what a company means by “diversity targets” then it would be cheaper to fake it and hire people to simply sit in on the photo shoots and window-dress the boardroom.

If a company is serious about diversity it has to be serious about targets and therefore it has to make diversity a fundamental VALUE.

When a company decides on a value, it will accept that this will impact its operations and sets about managing the potential problems that may result. It does this because the company recognizes that a commitment to that value will have a net gain over the long term because the value is leverage.

For instance, committing to the values of “going green” is going to have major operational consequences for a company. But the long-term benefit outweighs the short-term discomfort. So too, diversity targets will imply short term discomfort, but long-term gain. And the discomfort in the immediate future must be managed.

If you decide that diversity is a value, you don’t suddenly flip a switch and glow in rainbow colors. You have to take a long time and work out how exactly that value get’s grounded. And there are many mistakes along the way. But because it’s a value, you keep being drawn back to that central purpose, that place of commitment.

Going to back to the scenario above, here are some ways to prevent tokenism by reinvigorating the hiring process:

  1. Network with community organizations so you get to understand the needs and problems of under-represented groups.
  2. If you fail to reach a target, ask for help – public comment, community participation, college focus groups
  3. Put money into understanding how you can make your company more attractive to the groups you want to hire.
  4. Learn how your job advertisements are perceived by under-represented groups.
  5. Make sure targets are only one part of a comprehensive strategy that includes company – wide improvement in inclusive practices.
  6. Assume that all new hires are going to need help learning their new jobs. Examine your current onboarding and mentoring procedures and see where they can be improved to be more resilient and robust as well as responsive to new hires.

If you’re a manager and are faced with the prospect of 2 equally qualified individuals the VALUE of diversity should prod you toward choosing the individual who better helps to correct your company’s representativity whether that be in terms of race, gender, culture, ability sexuality.

When diversity is seen as a fundamental value that affects the whole company each manager must be making decisions about team appointments in view of the benefit to the whole company, not just to their team.

When diversity is seen as merely performative window dressing, managers are forced to make appointments that are bad for the company, their team and for those they appoint.

Diversity is too important to be consigned to a check-list.