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"Racism was established long before anyone reading this was alive. Consequently, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s embedded in our organizations in ways that can seem invisible to many of us."
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4 Ways to Improve Workplace Diversity and Equity Hiring

By Audrey Lampert | Thursday, October 24, 2019

Recently, my colleagues and I did a presentation on IHI’s internal diversity, inclusion, and equity journey at the Northeast Human Resources Association’s Annual Conference. Many of the comments and questions we received after the session were ones I, as a human resources professional, often hear about the challenges of recruiting a diverse and equitable workforce. My response is always the same: Get out your flashlight.

In other words, to hire more equitably, organizations need to shine a light in every corner of our hiring processes to find institutional racism, name it, and improve. Racism was established long before anyone reading this was alive. Consequently, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s embedded in our organizations in ways that can seem invisible to many of us. Institutional racism is part of our collective way of being and you don’t have to intentionally discriminate against anyone for this to be true.  

If you want a diverse workforce, you need equitable hiring practices. There are interdependencies between your talent acquisition system and your organization’s operating system that have been established through years of “best practices.” But for whom — we must ask ourselves — are these best practices designed?

To quote W. Edwards Deming, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” At the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, taking this idea to heart made us come to the painful realization that good intentions are not enough to develop a more diverse and equitable workplace. We have undertaken the difficult process of redesigning our systems to be more equitable. We don’t pretend to be experts, but we have learned a few painful (and rewarding) lessons along the way. Here is how I respond to some of the most common hiring challenges people describe:  

  • We hire the most qualified people. Most of them just happen to be white.” This is one of the most common arguments in defense of maintaining the status quo. It is not that recruiters and hiring managers don’t want to diversify their staff; they just want different results and do not know how to adapt their systems to achieve them.

    When I hear this statement, I pause for an uncomfortably long time. I don’t say anything until the silence gets a bit uneasy for both of us. My goal is to invite the speaker to lean into a type of discomfort that I’ve found can create space for productive reflection for myself and others. When I finally respond, I say, “It might be interesting to think about what picture the phrase ‘most qualified person’ conjures in your mind.” Before they start to say anything further, I suggest they think about it for a few days and see where they land. What do words like “best” and “most” mean? These conversations can shine some light on some of our collective biases.
  • “Diversity hiring takes too long.” Using more equitable hiring processes will take longer than inequitable processes, especially at the beginning, because you will probably, for example, have to explore new recruiting tactics and resources. But there is a substantial amount of research that builds the business case for having diverse voices at the table. (“Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter” by David Rock and Heidi Grant provides a good overview of this research.) So, if your hiring managers become impatient with the more equitable hiring process, there are multiple questions you can ask to help them consider not only their short-term needs, but also the long-term needs of your organization: Is our current workforce ready to compete in a global economy? Does our current workforce represent the demographics our organization needs to reach?

    You will need support from your C-suite when you get push back. Do you have it? It is not possible to successfully develop more equitable hiring without support from your senior leadership. IHI is fortunate to have a CEO who continuously demonstrates his support for our internal equity work and speaks openly about the leadership challenges of addressing institutional racism in health and health care.
  • “Our talent acquisition team has tried some diversity recruitment initiatives, but they haven’t worked. We don’t know what else to do.” You will likely test multiple ideas to find what works for your organization. We have found co-design to be the singularly most important component to all equity work, including diversity hiring. This means working with staff from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds to develop your processes. Learn from people you hired and those you did not. Make sure hiring teams are assessing candidates against competencies and not their unconscious ideas of what “best” looks like. Hiring for best “fit,” for example, can end up with an interviewer unconsciously rejecting a candidate because they don’t look, behave, or sound like them. As you collaborate to develop tests of change, you will need to illuminate places throughout your processes where bias hides.
  • Where do I start?” Start with yourself. Where are you in your personal equity journey? Privilege and systems of oppression impact every single aspect of talent acquisition and employment lifecycle processes. To see where racism and bias play a role in hiring, you need to illuminate every step along the way, including the role you play in preserving the status quo. There are many resources available to help you do this. For example, many people find “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh eye-opening. McIntosh writes, “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.”

    Staff training on the historical aspects of systemic racism can provide foundational tools and common language for equity work. At IHI, we have worked with the Undoing Racism: People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and the Racial Equity Institute.

IHI’s efforts have resulted in staff diversity going from 17 percent of staff identifying as people of color in 2014 to our current state of 32 percent in 2019. Hiring diverse staff, however, is just the beginning and not enough on its own. Creating an environment in which all staff can thrive is important for developing an equitable culture and improving retention. We will continue to shine a light in all the corners of our processes where bias lives. We invite you to get out your organizational flashlights to do the same. We look forward to learning with you.

Audrey Lampert is IHI’s Human Resources Director for Talent Acquisition. She and other presenters will be describing the internal equity work at IHI and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at the IHI National Forum during C28: Moving Beyond Diversity: Two Organizations Improving Workplace Equity from 1:30 to 2:45 PM on Tuesday, December 10.

You may also be interested in:

Equity sessions are part of IHI’s National Forum this December.

Use QI to Address Workforce Equality

When Talking about Race and Racism, Don’t Wait to Feel Comfortable

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