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Why So Many Diversity Initiatives Fail

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Co-Founder of TalentCompass: Recruitment Process Outsourcing for Private Equity & VC. Author of Evidence-Based Recruiting (McGraw Hill)

It was the second consecutive day that my calls were going straight to his voicemail. A few days earlier, my friend had texted me that he was heading to the ER. He called me from the hospital, letting me know the doctors were certain it wasn’t Covid-19, but none of the treatments were working. At this point, my friend was getting seriously concerned, and so was I. What was about to ensue became the starkest example I’ve yet experienced on how diversity in an organization can mean the difference between life and death — and how other organizations can learn from this.

A Lesson From A Close Call

When I finally got hold of my friend several days later, he explained how he very well could have died. He had contracted P. falciparum malaria, a treatable disease that the doctors had ruled out as a potential source of his illness about a week earlier. I mean, how could a man living in Colorado with only a recent trip to London have contracted a disease mainly prevalent in tropical regions?

Once malaria had been ruled out as a diagnosis, healthcare professional after healthcare professional saw him and reassured him and his wife that he had babesiosis, a rare parasitic infection that presents in a similar manner to malaria. But days passed, and the standard treatment for babesiosis was failing to yield any improvement. The situation was critical, but the doctors were reluctant to change his treatment.

The course of my friend’s illness changed when he was assigned a nurse who had trained as a nurse practitioner in Ethiopia. Based on his experience running clinics in East Africa, the nurse recognized my friend’s clinical presentation as a case of severe malaria, not babesiosis. He knew that without a change in treatment, my friend would likely die. When the nurse heard that an infectious disease doctor doing a weekend round was examining my friend, he dropped what he was doing and made his case to the doctor. Fortunately, the doctor was open to the unsolicited opinion of a nurse and recognized the unique perspective he brought given his training and experience in Africa. After doing some further examinations, the doctor changed my friend’s treatment. Within 12 hours, my friend started to improve. The CDC confirmed the diagnosis of falciparum malaria, and later, my friend was discharged. The New York Times Magazine even wrote about the case (registration required) in the October 18th edition.

Why So Many Diversity Initiatives Fail

As I reflected on my friend’s story in the days following the harrowing ordeal, my mind turned to the question of diversity. As a recruiter, I’ve seen my fair share of misguided diversity initiatives filled with buzz words but having no real value to their organizations. But here was a clear example of the value diversity can offer. So why is it that so many diversity initiatives fail?

My experience is that it often is because the management of the company is not truly embracing what diversity brings to the table for their organization. Many hiring managers want new team members who look different than their existing team but want these candidates to have the same educational background, work and life experiences and behaviors as essentially everyone else on their team. These leaders want to go from recruiting a bunch of look-alikes to hiring a bunch of think-alikes. 

One consulting firm we worked with wanted to hire partner candidates to strengthen their technology practice. Ideal candidates were described as those with a strong management consulting background and knowledge of the Asian telecom tech players. We presented them with a candidate with experience at McKinsey and who had spent the past few years working directly with the senior leadership team of Samsung at its headquarters in Korea. Yet, the consulting firm rejected the candidate as one of their partners felt he could not connect with the candidate on a personal level. In other words, the candidate failed to “talk football” with the partner.

Candidates know this. A brilliant candidate I was working with once asked me “Atta, does this organization truly want diversity or do they just want a photo op for their website?” Talented candidates will self-select out of organizations that are not truly embracing diverse views and behaviors. These diversity initiatives unsurprisingly fail to add any real value and, when they fail, the skeptics can feel good about resisting any future such initiatives.

Is Your Organization’s Diversity Making You Uncomfortable?

My observation is that the root cause of this problem often goes back to how you hire. Most leaders include some aspect of “cultural fit” in their interviews. The term “fit” already implies that new hires need to fit into the existing mold. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman explains in his new book Masters of Scale why instead of hiring for cultural fit, leaders should look for “cultural growth,” which is the idea that you’re building on your established foundation and that the employee will help grow your culture. 

Another way to look at it is that if the push for diversity in your organization is not leading to some instances where you feel uncomfortable, it may very well be that you are missing out on the real benefits of diversity. True diversity can help organizations realize enormous opportunities they might have missed or catch mistakes that could, as in my friend’s case, mean the difference between life and death. But this can only happen if leaders embrace hiring individuals with diverse thought processes and behavior that are different from themselves.


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