Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is top-of-mind for organizations across the globe, with 74% of companies reporting an increased focus on DEI near the end of 2020. Of these companies, the majority (64%) are reviewing talent management processes (i.e. hiring, performance management, succession planning) to identify and mitigate potential biases.


While organizations are ready and willing to drive change, there are barriers to making meaningful progress. Organizations report their top three challenges are recruiting diverse talent (51%), developing diverse talent (27%) and retaining diverse talent (26%).


Many organizations seeking to increase workforce diversity cite difficulties with finding top-tier talent from underrepresented groups. Others worry candidates from underrepresented groups won’t be interested in joining an organization that isn’t diverse or that bias within their talent acquisition practices will thwart long-term diversity hiring objectives.


Organizations need a multifaceted approach to tackle historical practices that exacerbate inequities in the hiring process. Below, we explore nine tactics your organization can use to enhance workforce diversity.


1. Rethink job requirements

Instead of searching for candidates with the perfect resume, assess applicant drive, potential and commitment. Emphasize aptitude and problem-solving ability as well as a willingness to continue learning. When writing job descriptions, incorporate competencies necessary to succeed in the role rather than specific skills (unless absolutely essential); many skills can be learned through on-the-job training. Before recruiting, clearly define required qualifications as opposed to those that are merely preferred.


2. Craft neutral job descriptions

Studies show that limiting language in the job description can discourage prospective candidates from applying. For example, to avoid alienating qualified candidates, remove gender-biased language (e.g., he/she pronouns, adjectives like “rockstar” and “ninja”). Research from RedThread Research and Mercer on DEI technologies addresses ways to simplify candidate sourcing and selection. Some applicant-tracking systems (ATSs) can analyze text to reduce bias in job-posting language. Other technologies analyze resumes for evidence of skills and competencies that match the job description.


3. Evaluate using “culture add” or “values fit”

Hiring candidates you “click with” seems like the right approach — why wouldn’t you want to work with someone whose company you enjoy? However, “culture fit” is often overly weighted and highly subjective. Instead, clearly outline the values that matter most to your organization. Develop an objective method for assessing these qualities, and define the weight given to such characteristics before recruiting begins. To avoid homogeneity and an environment conducive to “group think,” you should also consider what new traits candidates will bring to their teams to elevate company culture and enhance the way you operate. What skill, knowledge and perspective gaps exist on your current team, and how can you create targeted recruitment tactics to address them? 


4. Minimize recruiting bias 

Use analytics to determine where bias exists in your recruiting process. Evaluate candidate data at various stages to ensure diversity and determine potential career blockages or barriers.


Mitigation tactics include:

  • Regularly assessing workforce dynamics using tools such as Mercer’s Internal Labor Market Maps to identify potential inequity in hiring, promotion and retention.
  • Ensuring all candidates are asked the same interview questions, ideally in the same order.
  • Developing standardized methods for assessing candidates at each stage and establishing parameters for how selections will be made before recruiting (for example, developing metrics for rating candidates and clearly defining what you’re looking for with specific questions).
  • Eliminating self-evaluation questions. If needed, conduct proficiency tests or request work samples to verify skills.
  • Using more than one person to select recruits, ideally a committee of individuals of differing tenure, gender, ethnicity and level. Consider including colleagues from other departments to help evaluate candidates from a different lens, especially if your team isn’t very diverse to begin with.

5. Conduct conscious inclusion training

Make sure your talent acquisition teams and all interviewers undergo training that brings their biases to light and teaches them how to communicate inclusively with people from varied backgrounds. Encourage managers to think about how nontraditional candidates can add value, particularly those who lack technical skills or the job history typical of their coworkers. Conduct this training before every recruiting cycle, and provide refresher summaries before off-cycle hiring.


6. Understand your labor market

Some organizations cite a lack of qualified diverse talent in the locations from which they recruit. This belief is problematic, especially if it assumes individuals from underrepresented backgrounds can’t perform certain roles — and it probably means that the talent sources themselves lack diversity.


In addition to addressing these incorrect assumptions through education and change management, you should conduct an External Labor Market Analysis to identify new locations to recruit from, particularly for roles that can be performed remotely (especially relevant in light of the COVID-19 pandemic). Establish relationships with target candidates early in their career journeys by forming partnerships with on-campus affinity groups at colleges and universities as well as professional organizations dedicated to the development of diverse talent. And invest in programs that provide learning opportunities for young women and other underrepresented groups. In the US, consider building relationships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs).


7. Set hiring goals

Communicate gaps in representation by level and functional area. Provide key stakeholders with access to DEI dashboards that depict the current state of representation across demographic groups, as well as clearly defined hiring goals and objectives, to enhance accountability and alignment with your DEI strategy. Consider establishing hiring targets for underrepresented individuals at each stage of the recruiting process; for example, don’t fill any roles without first interviewing a predetermined number of diverse candidates. Be sure to partner with your legal teams to ensure hiring targets don’t infringe on labor-employment or civil-rights laws.


 8. Use a referral bonus

Referrals are generally a top source of talent due to decreased hiring times, higher conversion rates, lower attrition rates and lower recruiting cost. Developing an elevated bonus for referring underrepresented candidates from specific demographics can help employees think beyond their immediate networks to source talent.


9. Communicate

According to Mercer’s Let’s Get Real About Equality research, 65% of organizations are feeling pressure from employees to improve DEI outcomes. Companies should expect the same from candidates who are seeking authenticity and proactivity. Be transparent about your DEI journey and long-term strategies when recruiting. Showcase DEI content, culture and branding on your careers pages and external websites by highlighting examples of the company’s diverse workforce, employee stories in their own words, employee resource groups, and messaging from C-level leaders supporting DEI. But of course, make sure you are taking meaningful actions to accelerate DEI internally before you start sharing externally – otherwise, your DEI efforts may appear performative in nature.


It’s clear from the above that you must consider diversity at every stage of talent acquisition, spanning sourcing, talent identification and screening, candidate selection and hiring, and onboarding. It may be some time before you observe significant changes in the makeup of your workforce. But you won’t see any progress until you implement mechanisms that address systemic inequities and drive accountability at all levels of your organization.


Whether you’re at the start of your DEI journey or have been working at it for years, assessing and refining your DEI talent acquisition strategy can help you mitigate bias and maximize efforts to enhance workforce diversity.


Victoria Archer
Victoria Archer
Talent Strategy and DEI Consultant, Mercer

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