Most organisations are genuinely committed to recruiting a more diverse workforce. They devote significant amounts of money and resources to it, backed up by ambitious targets. But progress often remains stubbornly slow. The problem is that, despite these efforts, organisations continue to use traditional approaches to recruitment – making judgements on CVs and competency-based interviews. That usually means that they end up looking in the same places for the same kinds of people.
A more effective way to shift the dial on diversity is – somewhat unexpectedly – to stop thinking about diversity as such and take a strengths-based approach, where you focus on what kind of person will thrive in each role and the strengths they need. Are they natural connectors, do they have high standards, care about doing the right thing or love developing others?
How to start
The starting point in developing a strengths profile for a role is to look at the characteristics of your top performers. Examining the strengths, values and motivations they have in common will reveal what good truly looks like. This will also help managers avoid the temptation to simply recruit in their own image by shifting the focus from a candidate’s experience, to examining what makes an effective performer.
For some roles, it is immediately obvious what’s needed. For example, if you are recruiting for salespeople it’s likely you’ll be looking for people who are naturally competitive. However, for some roles the strengths that make for success are less clear. And for these roles, it is important to look beyond the stereotypes and not fall back on preconceptions about the kind of person you think you need. Our work in prisons showed that the most successful prison officers did not conform to a traditional image of tough, assertive types but were primarily problem solvers.
Once you have a strengths profile for a given role, hiring managers can shake off assumptions and become more open to recruiting and developing people who are different from those their organisation usually recruits. That means they will look in new places for recruits and can target people who may have never thought of joining a particular company or sector before. One company discovered its best performers in their contact centre had strengths commonly found in ex services personnel. They had not thought about recruiting those people before and it opened their minds to a new pool of talent. Equally, those who had served in the armed forces had not thought that contact centre work would be a good fit for them, but by framing the job advert around the strengths needed, those applicants could see why they might be good at the job. That, in turn, generated a more diverse pool of applicants.
Having created a clear strengths profile and used it through the initial stages of the recruitment process, the next step is to apply it to a properly conducted strengths interview. This will be clearly focused on establishing whether a person has what it takes to be great at a job. It allows the interviewer to see the person in front of them, not their prejudices about them.
This is very different from a competency-based interview which tends to let people provide prepared answers. These exchanges can often leave the interviewer none the wiser whether they have found the right candidate – and the applicant frustrated that the interviewer hasn’t really got to know them. Strength based interviews are much more likely to be a two-way exchange which enable the candidate to reveal what they really enjoy doing and are good at.
This is a valuable approach for roles at all levels including when recruiting young people who do not have extensive experience to talk about at interview. It also helps to tackle the lack of diversity around socio-economic background by allowing the recruiter to look at strengths rather than experience, which may have been gained only because the candidate had a more privileged background. With a growing focus on recruiting for apprenticeships and on the role of companies in supporting social mobility and levelling up, this will be increasingly important.
Some organisations which have adopted strengths-based interviews for internal promotions have discovered that people who were previously overlooked in competency-based interviews have come through strengths-based ones successfully. This was true in a UK regulator that had a predominantly male leadership group. Applying a strengths approach to promotions brought a much more diverse group of managers. This helped retain women and other minority groups who had become disillusioned about their promotion prospects. In one London NHS Trust more BAME people were selected to senior nursing jobs once they introduced strengths-based selection and the same is true for organisations looking to improve their gender balance.
Achieving changes within your existing team
Strengths based approaches are easily applied to the recruitment process, but they are equally powerful when used to create cultural change within an organisation. It can show that what matters are the strengths people have, and that they can take different approaches to applying those strengths. This happened in a social care provider where managers felt it had helped them bring in good people and gave them confidence in who they hired. Carers themselves loved it because they felt seen and valued for what they brought to the role. This changed the culture from one of constantly focusing on what was wrong with people to valuing and appreciating what was right. The HR Director tells the story of visiting one of the branches one day and the branch manager greeted her at the door saying: “You haven’t come to take strengths-based away, have you?”
Organisations that are truly committed to the next step in improving their diversity should take a step back from traditional targets and ticking boxes. Instead, they should focus on thinking about how they can find the right person for the role – and diversity will take care of itself. The people who are recruited will feel valued for what they bring and emboldened to be themselves, which reinforces diversity further.