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Developing Intellectual Diversity

New research finds a lack of intellectual diversity could be harming your organization, and experts say it is up to HR executives to increase the urgency around hiring this type of talent, who can bring unique and fresh perspectives to the organization.

Thursday, August 6, 2015
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One of the questions asked of senior HR executives in Korn Ferry Institute's CHRO Pulse Survey 2015 was: "Do you feel your organization is lacking in experiential and intellectual diversity?"

A surprising 62 percent answered "Yes."

In the past, diversity has tended to be defined in racial, sexual, ethnic and/or religious terms, and companies have focused on these types of diversity for at least four reasons.

First, it is required by law. As noted on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's website, "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects individuals against employment discrimination on the basis of race and color, as well as national origin, sex or religion."

Second, many organizations assume that hiring to meet traditional diversity requirements will also ensure diversity in other ways. "Many organizations have turned to racial, ethnic, and gender diversity as proxies for diversity of perspective," says Ravin Jesuthasan, global head of talent management for Towers Watson. "It is a fair proxy, because you do gain different perspectives, because their life experiences have been different. However, you need to look beyond what has worked in the past."

Third, according to Ellie Filler, senior client partner and managing partner for Korn Ferry International's Human Resources Center of Expertise, gender and ethnic diversity can be easier to quantify, measure and manage than other types of diversity. "Intellectual diversity is more difficult to quantify and measure," she says, "so [measuring it] tends to be quite subjective, based on who is evaluating each candidate."

Finally, people tend to hire people like themselves, says Paul Rubenstein, New York-based leader of talent strategy, leadership and assessment for Aon Hewitt.

"We are not inclined to hire those with a diversity of thought, or a greatly different level of curiosity than we ourselves have," he says. "Companies struggle, for example, with moving toward a growth culture. Yet, they hire in the same image as their current culture."

However, there are benefits to expand "diversity" hiring to include intellectual and experiential diversity. For example, Towers Watson published a research report with Oxford Economics two years ago titled Global Talent 2021, which was based on interviews with 450 CHROs from around the world.

One of the questions related to the types of skills they anticipated needing over the next 10 years. "A lot of them emphasized the importance of having diversity of perspective and diversity of experience, not only from a business perspective, but also a risk mitigation perspective," says Jesuthasan. "If we're used to turning left when we see this set of signals, given the way the world is currently operating and the growing volatility in the global economy, it would be beneficial to have a some people who say, 'We might want to turn right, and here's why.' "

In addition, more experientially and intellectually diverse talent has been shown to have a direct impact on creating the diverse global organizations that will find success now and in the future through leveraging their strong leadership capabilities to foster positive business results, says Filler.

"It is up to HR executives today to increase the urgency around hiring this type of diverse talent, who can bring unique and fresh perspectives to the organization," she says.

What can HR do to "get the ball rolling" in this direction? Respondents to Korn Ferry's CHRO Pulse Survey 2015 identified three primary ways they are trying to address the shortage: Working with department leaders on the hiring process, developing more robust external networking opportunities and utilizing new HR tools to assess current and potential talent.

"Ultimately, these three strategies are synergistic, working in tandem to enhance HR executives' efforts to address the shortage of experientially and intellectually diverse talent," says Filler. "Ultimately, the promise of market success brings a longer time horizon during which organizations are prepared to invest in talent strategies, allowing companies to balance short-term results with a longer-term commitment to glean these employees."

Jesuthasan recommends asking yourself: "Are the skills that got you here in the past the ones that will also take you forward?" If not, then consider new angles. For example, "you may have recruited from specific schools in the past," he says. "Step back and challenge yourself to consider different schools."

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Rubenstein advises hiring managers to "stop trying to 'fill jobs,' and instead focus on identifying personality elements that will round out your work teams." he says. "Move the culture toward the desired future direction. Start measuring the composition of a team, and present candidates who fill what's missing. At the very least, don't reinforce the characteristics of the culture that the enterprise is trying to weed out." He also recommends encouraging recruiters to focus less on "time to fill" and more on "quality of hire."

Despite new strategies and initiatives from HR to recruit and hire individuals with more intellectual and experiential diversity, there is likely to be a hidden problem in the organization that can work against this-managers and supervisors who prefer "more of the same," so they can remain in their "personal comfort zones."

"Humans are creatures of habit," says Filler. "One challenge HR executives face includes leveraging 'inside-out' and 'outside-in' perspectives to help leaders think broadly, and yet consistently challenge that thinking." As she sees it, HR has the challenge to create and evolve organizational cultures to be more open-minded and help leaders understand themselves and the implications of their actions.

How can this be done? Jesuthasan suggests showing managers where their blind spots are and why having people with different perspectives can be valuable to them. The benefit: These people will help the manager's whole team be better, which reflects well on the manager.

Meanwhile, Rubenstein recommends the use of personality tests and other instruments with a high degree of accuracy to conduct an assessment of a team and show the manager the skills and personality traits that are over-weighted and those that are underweighted. "It's just like looking at your investment portfolio," he says. Identify the skills and experiences that the manager needs to diversify his or her team "portfolio."

Managers may still resist, though. One reason, says Rubenstein, is that managers are still coming from an economic environment where every headcount is precious.

"Being down one contributor means that immediate needs won't be met," he says. "They have been used to low-risk hiring to ensure that the 'work will get done.' Now, it's about growth, which means hiring not for the work in front of you, but for the work that you can't see yet."

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