What Hiring for Diversity Requires From Leaders

ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo speaker chef Jeff Henderson has strong feelings on how to create diverse teams. It starts by understanding the culture the team exists in to start with.

Jeff Henderson is best known as a chef. But he’s also a student of workplace cultures, with a particular eye for how we handle building diverse teams—or avoid doing so.

Henderson, the Closing General Session speaker at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Toronto this August, recently spoke with me for an Associations Now feature on his remarkable rise from convicted drug dealer to successful gourmet chef and TV host. But the bulk of our conversation circled around how he learned to get ahead by understanding how workplace cultures operate, and what their blind spots are when it comes to hiring for diversity.

They can’t just put a message on recruitment ads and be done.

“In corporate America, the folks who run HR, come from middle class America, so I had to fit that profile,” Henderson told me. “I had to understand the hidden rules of the middle class….I learned early on that people judge you by the cover of the book. People judge you by the color of your skin…. So I had to understand how middle-class people think, from the cars they drive, the type of shoes, the socks, their vocabulary.”

This urge to understand people from different backgrounds isn’t a two-way street: The unspoken truth about Henderson’s efforts was that he was putting in the work on employers because he assumed employers weren’t going to put in the work on people like him. That assumption is borne out by some recent workplace studies. For instance, one Austrian researcher found that employers in Germany were more likely to reject candidates from seemingly Muslim backgrounds, regardless of qualifications. “If two applicants of identical merit are treated differently solely because of some characteristic that is irrelevant for their ability to do the job (such as their name), economists can usually chalk that difference up to discrimination,” researcher Doris Weichselbaumer told the Harvard Business Review.

And more: A group of researchers in Canada and the United States found that nonwhite job candidates were more likely to get callbacks for jobs if they “whitened” their resumes—African American engineers, for instance, might do better by “dropping the word ‘black’ from a membership in a professional society for black engineers,” according to a Quartz story on the study. And Harvard researchers have found that Silicon Valley venture capitalists are more likely to pursue women investors if they have daughters themselves. That’s good news in some cases, but it suggests that diverse hiring is provisional, and not really built into the infrastructure of the organization.

So what can people who lead associations—or who help build teams within associations, such as boards and volunteer groups—do to respond to those blind spots? Henderson is of the opinion that you can, in a way, institutionalize the kind of wisdom that comes out of that study of VCs—that is, recognize that the more experience leaders have with people from a variety of backgrounds, the less likely they are to let prejudices and biases inform their hiring work. He suggests that hiring managers participate in a panel where, for instance, African Americans from different economic backgrounds discuss their lives. “You’d be able to see, it’s totally different,” Henderson says. “The only difference between the middle class African American and the middle class white American is the color of their skin and the texture of their hair.”

That sort of arrangement may be a lot for an organization to take on at first, though. An easier—and fairly essential—first step for every organization is to be candid about how badly they need that kind of conversation. And one way to do that is to look at the data inside your own office about your hiring practices. The Quartz article recommends not just looking at how many minorities made the first cut in the hiring process, but also how many applied in the first place. As Harvard’s Katherine A. DeCelles told the publication, “They can’t just put a message on recruitment ads and be done. They need to follow through with a clear structure and staff training. They need to make goals and then continually evaluate the outcome in order to meet those goals.”

What does your organization do to monitor and respond to its hiring blind spots when it comes to diversity? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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