A New Study Says 1 Critical Choice Leads To More Diversity In Hiring

Job applications from people of underrepresented backgrounds increased by 118% with this one big decision.
Who is in charge of hiring can make a huge difference in the diversity of candidates who apply.
Deepak Sethi via Getty Images
Who is in charge of hiring can make a huge difference in the diversity of candidates who apply.

Before a job candidate is ever hired, people in power make basic but significant decisions on how a job search will be conducted ― decisions that can either help attract applicants of underrepresented backgrounds or turn them off.

One of these critical choices is who is appointed to lead a search committee to fill an open position. A new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that if a woman and/or person of color heads such a committee, it can have a huge positive impact on the diversity of applicants.

Candidates notice who is doing and leading the hiring.

Researchers from the University of Houston, Louisiana State University Shreveport and the University of Sheffield analyzed data from 13,750 job applications for 156 faculty positions that were available from 2015 to 2018 at a large U.S. research university.

They found that when a woman led a search committee, 23% more women applied for the job than when the committee chair was a man.

Applicants of color are especially more likely to apply when other people of color with power actively recruit them. Data showed that the applications of candidates from underrepresented backgrounds — which the researchers defined as including Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander, Alaskan Native and Native American candidates — went up by 118% when the search chair was also from an underrepresented background.

“Applicants of color are especially more likely to apply when other people of color with power actively recruit them.”

White men may be more likely to uphold the status quo and fail to promote a job outside their own networks because that approach has served them well, said study co-author Christiane Spitzmueller, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Houston.

“A lot of older white men who have been in the academy their entire lives, they’re like, ‘We’ve always just hired by putting an ad out there and seeing who applies,’ and that has been their approach to recruiting for decades,” she told HuffPost. “And they’re like ‘Look how great this group [of candidates] is, why would we change anything, it brought all of us here.’”

Women and/or people of color have different approaches to leading a job search.

Ultimately, the study underscores the importance of hiring managers’ networks. The researchers found that including language in the job listing that went beyond the legal requirement for welcoming candidates of diverse backgrounds did not have a significant impact on who applied. However, networking with and proactively targeting underrepresented candidates on job boards and through other official channels had the biggest effect on increasing the diversity of applicant pools.

“If minority applicants are not made aware of a job posting, they will not apply; if fewer minorities apply, there is less chance that the eventual hire belongs to a minority group even if the subsequent stages of the recruitment and selection cycle follow diversity-friendly practices,” the study stated.

Race and gender played a role in what recruitment strategies professionals picked when they were in charge of hiring. White women and women of color in the study leaned on their personal networks and appointed other women to serve on the committee with them, while people of color, male or female, posted job ads to women- and minority-specific websites and collaborated with the university’s recruitment, retention, equity and diversity office.

Faculty of color outperformed other groups in assembling a “richer, deeper applicant pool” of more diverse candidates, Spitzmueller said.

She suggested that this may be because faculty of color know that they need to be persistent and find creative mechanisms to overcome structural barriers in recruitment. The study also suggested that faculty of color were not appointing more peers of color to be on their search committees because there were few other faculty members of color to choose from.

“Understand that BIPOC and women often don't have a choice but to be part of the change we want to see in diversity, belonging and inclusion, but white people and men often have that choice.”

- Nadia de Ala

Lisa Orbé-Austin, an executive coach and organizational consultant, said that the findings were no shock to her. She noted that people of color could also be going through formal channels over personal networks as a way of legitimizing their choices ― they may think they have to rely on objectives measures and sources because when they personally refer candidates, both they and the candidate have a greater chance of being under scrutiny.

People of color leading searches may also be trying to institutionalize change through job boards so that an organization’s diversity initiatives last longer than one person’s tenure, Orbé-Austin said.

“As long as I’m here I’ll be able to source talent, but the minute I go, then they’re no longer able to find the talent because the talent goes through me,” she said some may think.

One person can make a difference, but it’s up to everyone to make a job search more inclusive.

Of course, the burden to make sure job candidates best reflect the institution should not fall on women and/or people of color alone.

“It’s inexcusable in this day and age for diversity initiatives to fall on the shoulders of those who are the most negatively impacted by lack of diversity, such as BIPOC and women,” said Nadia de Ala, founder of Real You Leadership, a group coaching program for women who are Black, Indigenous and other people of color. “Understand that BIPOC and women often don’t have a choice but to be part of the change we want to see in diversity, belonging and inclusion, but white people and men often have that choice.”

De Ala recommended that employees not from unrepresented backgrounds educate themselves about how they can better support diverse candidates.

“Read articles, books, studies ― read a lot,” she said. “Be open to being uncomfortable in creating internal change in you and external change in your actions by putting in anything you learn to increase your impact on diversity hiring, belonging and retention into practice every day.”

One other way to make this labor fair is for employers to recognize it as labor. Spitzmueller recommends that organizations compensate women and/or people of color for their time leading and serving on search committees and making sure that their impact is recognized in performance evaluations.

“There is a lot that is asked, especially of women of color,” she said. “It’s mentorship, it’s committees, it’s a whole array of service demands.”