Improving diversity and inclusivity in the workplace has become a key priority for HR teams, particularly as public attention has turned to racial and social injustices following the tragic death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter campaign.
In addition to growing pressure from governments, employees and customers that are “pushing” businesses to address workplace inequalities, there are a number of benefits “pulling” organizations to become more diverse. Research shows that companies that value equality, inclusivity, and diversity have higher levels of productivity and are better at attracting and hiring great talent. Studies also suggest that cognitively diverse teams solve problems faster and spot new opportunities that less diverse teams might overlook.
Creating fairer and more inclusive talent and employment practices needs to go well beyond token gestures, window-dressing and addressing the symptoms of workplace injustices. It is time for bold action to address the structural and attitudinal barriers blocking equality of opportunity, which includes rethinking how internal and external talent is assessed. Organizations are increasingly using talent assessment tools to recruit and develop talent and, if used correctly, it can help overcome biases, source talent more widely and develop individuals to increase diversity at senior levels.
Make D&I a core part of your talent strategy
D&I should neither be treated as a “nice to have” policy nor imposed on the company by the HR department, as this can lead to acts of tokenism, widespread resentment and affect long-term integrity. To gain commitment from top management and employees, it should be an integral part of the organization’s strategy and goals. For some businesses the focus is improving innovation while for others it is growing sales or penetrating new, untapped market segments. Making D&I central to your organization’s strategy is more likely to make real and lasting progress, as top management will treat it as a business priority, which in turn translates into workplace culture.
When formulating your D&I strategy it is important to measure, track and report representation of different groups of employees, including genders, ethnic groups, sexual orientations, ages and other potentially under-represented groups. Rather than looking only at organization-level data, this should be done by job type, hierarchical level, business unit, etc. to identify areas requiring specific focus and improvement. It is also important to track the mobility of these groups through the organization as this is one of the key yardsticks that can prove the success of your D&I strategy.
Hidden sources of unfairness such as social class must also be considered, as these factors can be strongly related to racial discrimination. Many organizations fill their top management teams and high-status roles with internal and external candidates from privileged educational and social backgrounds. This cycle can be broken by looking beyond traditional sources when recruiting people into these roles in future. Organizations can use agencies specializing in ethnically diverse candidates and introduce hiring advertising campaigns targeting under-represented groups. Talent assessment tools enable organizations look beyond CVs to get an understanding of ability and help them to overcome always hiring from the same educational institutions or rival firms.
Clarify what great performance looks like
Too many organizations use highly subjective rather than scientifically sound approaches to job design and talent assessment. They create job descriptions and competency standards but do little to gather supporting evidence of the talents, skills and motivations required for success in a particular role, career path and team. Approaches including the 9-Box Talent Grid assess the performance and potential of internal candidates, yet don’t define what effective performance and potential look like, or how to measure it objectively. Without clarity on what success factors are being measured, hiring managers and recruiters fall back on subjective and unreliable methods such as generic ability and personality tests to assess candidates. Poorly designed assessment practices undermine the organization’s ability to accurately predict performance and potential and exacerbate barriers to diversity and inclusion. Equally, mis-hires can be costly and detrimental to morale for both the individual and the wider team.
Rapid advancements in analytics tools and platforms enable organizations to robustly and efficiently analyse individual talents, motivations and values contributing to effective performance in key jobs. The resulting objective and verifiable data can be used to design more objective and fairer assessment processes.
Use work samples and skills assessments
Many organizations still rely heavily on unstructured interviews to hire talent. Yet studies show that this approach is inaccurate. It is subject to numerous biases including the pervasive “similar-to-me” bias, where interviewers make up their mind about someone in the first minutes based on subjective factors such as personal ‘chemistry’ and shared interests. To remain objective, an increasing number of organizations now use standardised assessment tests – including ability and personality tests – which provide more impartial data to inform the final hiring decision. This is a promising trend. However, a lot of assessments are outdated, cumbersome to complete and set by people who are not properly trained to use them in a professional and ethical manner.
Fortunately, traditional assessments are giving way to new, candidate-friendly ways of assessing and predicting performance and potential. The focus has shifted from proxies of behaviour, e.g. completing a survey or measuring task performance using work samples and simulations. Work samples of this nature are the single best predictor of job performance as they represent actual scenarios encountered in the role. While they can be expensive, and time consuming to design and implement, innovative technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and gamification are reducing the costs and improving the investment case for such approaches.
Think beyond educational requirements
The qualities that predict effective performance on the job typically fall into one of three areas: abilities, motivation, and social-emotional skills. It is important for companies to consider all these factors and not over-inflate one at the expense of the others. A lot of companies still exaggerate the importance of educational attainment and analytical reasoning, overlooking the importance of other vital success factors including learning ability, social and emotional skills, and perseverance. Although a growing body of research shows that the latter are just as important, arguably even more so, for effective performance in many roles, including leadership positions.
These factors are becoming even more significant in the highly collaborative, complex, and unpredictable world we now live in. At the same time, this unprecedented change is causing the ‘shelf life’ of education and technical expertise to reduce at an alarmingly fast pace. Despite this, many organizations still stubbornly and unquestioningly prioritise educational qualifications, technical skills, and experience over so-called “softer skills”, motivation, and perseverance. HR and talent leaders need to be bold in challenging these outdated practices, as they are not only unreliable predictors of performance for many roles. They also strongly correlate with social class so can perpetuate discrimination towards minority groups who have come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Assess and amplify individuality and uniqueness
Assessments measuring personality and ability still tend to describe and measure human abilities and behaviour in narrow, limiting ways. For example, many widely used personality profiles pigeon-hole people into broad, oversimplified character types, categories and even colours, e.g. extroverts versus introverts. This view of human behaviour at work is seductively simple and although such over-generalized personality typing can give organizations a basic understanding of how people approach tasks and relate to others. Yet their value is limited and can be counterproductive. In a world that increasingly recognizes the importance of discovering and leveraging diversity, they promote narrow thinking and stereotyping.
Fortunately, a new generation of assessment tools is emerging, which focus on understanding what’s unique and different about people’s strengths, talents, abilities, and behaviours. These capture the unique talents, values, and motivations we leverage to do our best work, which is more aligned to modern thinking and how younger generations want to be perceived. Even when people have similar personality traits, talents and abilities, these tools and approaches recognize that people apply them in different ways, depending on the way they interpret and respond to different situations.
Many current approaches to talent assessment do little to promote D&I or break down subjectivity and unconscious bias in the way employees are selected, hired, and promoted. To future-proof their organization and achieve better talent outcomes, HR leaders and professionals need to evaluate the rigour and relevance of their current assessment tools and practices. This includes how well they predict performance and promote a diverse, inclusive workplace as this will be key to securing and, more importantly, retaining employees of different backgrounds at every level of the company. Those based on outdated thinking and questionable science should be replaced with scientifically valid, up-to-date approaches that pinpoint people’s unique and diverse talents, abilities motivations and values. This data will not only help organizations to build peak performing and inclusive teams but also support individuals to thrive and achieve their potential.
James Brook is an entrepreneur, business psychologist and established leadership and talent expert with more than 25 years’ experience in assessment, talent and leadership development and coaching. He created the next generation of talent assessment tool, TalentPredix™ to provide powerful insights to help employers hire talented people and empower them to thrive at work. Brook pioneered the strengths-based approach to talent management in the UK.