There’s more to diversity than being different
The Internet erupted in December when Twitter Inc., under fire for hiring a lot of white guys, said it had hired Jeffrey Siminoff as its new vice president of diversity and inclusion. A 50-year-old white male? The former head of diversity at Apple Inc., a tech giant hardly known as a trailblazer in creating a rainbow workforce? Seriously?
But specialists in hiring and diversity issues say that race and gender should not automatically qualify or disqualify anyone for a job.
Ted Childs, a diversity consultant who worked in human resources at International Business Machines Corp. for nearly 40 years, recalled his answer to an African-American colleague who once questioned his recommendation of a white man for a major corporate diversity leadership position.
“My response was, ‘We can’t have all the jobs, and we can’t assume that people who don’t look like us can’t do them effectively,’ ” said Childs, who is also African-American. “To make that assumption essentially validates all the people who said we couldn’t do a certain job because we are what we are.”
Jennifer Cedor, a former diversity coordinator for the Boston Bar Association, agreed with Childs and other specialists who said experience and commitment to diversity are the most important factors in such an appointment. Still, she would think twice before hiring a white man.
“I would prefer someone of color to be heading a diversity position, because most of the issues that we have are because we don’t have enough people of color at the top, that are making these decisions,” she said.
Nia Evans, chairwoman of the labor and industry committee of the Boston NAACP chapter, said any person’s identity is a complex and individual issue, and there is no guarantee that someone’s race, gender, age, or sexuality will help or hinder their effectiveness.
Twitter’s Siminoff, for example, is openly gay and has been active in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
Evans said that having experienced discrimination as a member of one minority group does not automatically give someone a firm understanding of how discrimination affects another group.
“It could be beneficial; I would not presume that it’s beneficial,” she said. “It’s entirely possible to be a member of a class that has been historically discriminated against and hold prejudice or have implicit bias against another class. That’s entirely possible and actually not unusual, either.”
Fred K. Foulkes, director of the Human Resources Policy Institute at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, said it is unusual today to see a white male head of diversity at a major corporation, though 10 or 15 years ago it was common.
He said the right training can help an executive overcome unconscious biases that all people carry, but for a diversity officer to be effective, he or she needs support from the top.
“In the companies that make a difference, it’s clear that the CEO has to really care about it and take a stand, and make that very visible to others,” he said.
Foulkes described sensitivity to diversity as being similar to other desirable traits for an executive, and said bosses can motivate diversity officers to be effective as they would with any other measure of success, by tying their performance to their bonus pay.
Evans of the NAACP said corporate diversity efforts must not come from only one person or one division but must span the entire organization.
She said effectiveness also depends on diversity leaders in organizations being willing to confront issues head-on.
“These are not easy conversations,” she said. “I think a person would have to have ability to convene people around conversations that are uncomfortable, and do them in a way that does not leave people more frustrated than when they began the conversation.”
Childs, the former IBM executive, said executives need to realize that having a diverse staff is simply good for business.
“We’re talking about the intersection of talent and marketplace,” Childs said. “If I’m selling cars, if I’m selling computers, if I’m selling cigarettes — whatever — I need to have people who look like the marketplace working for me. . . . Idealism is [expletive]. This is about business. This is about being competitive.”