At the 2017 ASU+GSV Summit, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner underscored the importance of pursuing candidates from diverse backgrounds who too often get missed during recruitment. Hiring for diversity, Weiner explained, is not simply about checking boxes to fulfill a quota; it’s about pursuing strong attributes that would otherwise go missing in an organization. “These are qualities that you don’t necessarily pick up from a degree,” he asserted. “They are qualities—non-cognitive skills sometimes—that have a tendency to be completely overlooked when people are sifting through resumes or LinkedIn profiles. And yet increasingly we find that these are the kinds of people that make the biggest difference within our organization. And one of the things we’re dedicated to right now is trying to find a way to scale that, […] figuring out how, as a platform, we can do a better job at surfacing that kind of talent.”
Many organizations look to elite university educations and extensive years of experience in a field as a short cut to the best and the brightest. But these traditional metrics too often demonstrate past opportunities and privileges rather than a personal aptitude that will better match an individual to a particular position. Many organizations are guilty of these biases in hiring, but in Silicon Valley, Weiner discovered the ridiculous extent to which they dominate recruitment: “We recently conducted research leveraging LinkedIn profiles and looked at tech workers within the Valley, and only 5% of them came from non-traditional backgrounds.”
What is overlooked by recruiting from such a shallow pool? For one thing, a privileged education often disguises an individual’s mindset in the face of adversity. How will a candidate respond to challenges in the workplace if her background demonstrates nothing but streamlined opportunities that most job seekers have never had? This is not to say that those who have made their way through advanced degrees have not surmounted obstacles; Ivy League schools, for example, continue to make room for those who have had fewer opportunities. Even affluent students who follow a more typical path through higher education cannot be accused of lacking a work ethic or the tenacity to meet unexpected challenges.
But for every student who becomes the first in her family to graduate college, there are thousands from similar underserved backgrounds who have stories of accomplishment in the face of tremendous adversity that may not translate well into resumes. As Weiner indicated, these are not qualities of resilience that can be obviously demonstrated in a CV or LinkedIn profile.
In her 2015 TED talk, Regina Hartley, VP of HR at UPS, makes a similar point with two vivid terms that distinguish the qualified individual whose life has “been engineered for success” from the equally qualified candidate who has had to fight “against tremendous odds to get to the same point”—respectively, the Silver Spoon and the Scrapper. The Scrapper may offer a resume that shows a patchwork history of various jobs held for short periods, and, according to Hartley, a hiring committee can read this in two ways: “A series of odd jobs may indicate inconsistency, lack of focus, unpredictability, or it may signal a committed struggle against obstacles. At the very least, the Scrapper deserves an interview.”
Job seekers typically avoid perceived failures in their resumes, even though an individual’s response to setbacks can often best represent what a candidate will do in an adverse situation on the job. When Carol Dweck coined and described the “growth mindset,” she focused on the individual’s response to failure. Those who regard failures as opportunities for gaining experience and knowledge—rather than simply confirmations of inadequacy—succeed in being lifelong learners who will always remain enthusiastic when course corrections arise, less resistant toward unexpected demands, and alert to changes that may otherwise go unnoticed.
A recruiter will not necessarily find this type of person by merely selecting out the well-educated who have a vast fund of experience in a particular field. By choosing candidates among diverse backgrounds, a hiring committee is more likely to find unique individuals with greater alacrity toward change who will add value and dynamism to an organization’s mission.
I’ll give Jeff Weiner the last word: “We’re focusing on the fact that, around a table, we need decision makers who come from a diverse set of perspectives—once again, not for the sake of it, not for the sake of talking about numbers—but because our decision makers need to be reflective of the people we serve, our members and our customers. And to the extent we’re not aligned—we’re not able to do that—we’re going to be making sub-optimal decisions.”
Forgive pointing out the obvious, but is it supposed to be surprising that “only 5% of [tech workers] came from non-traditional backgrounds?”
That’s why we call them “traditional” and “non-traditional!” If 95% came from “non-traditional backgrounds” /those/ would suddenly become “traditional!” Now–perhaps LinkedIn’s definition of “non-traditional” is more expansive than the 5% they found, but we should be critical when we consider these findings.
Further: “Privilege” seems to be a term of disparagement–but we should be cautious when seemingly discounting or discarding such people–and I see that you have been cautious here. People who come purely from /unearned/ privilege may have more to prove–but most people have had some incremental benefit from their own “privilege” (which really, when you think about it, encompasses each and every one of us, who each bring some strength and positive aspect to our background). No one has a corner on “privilege.”
And I can attest to the fact that “adversity” can be a relative term–having weathered a breadth of adversity, myself at different times in my life. We each either rise to the challenges of the moment or are overcome by them. What you think is overcoming adversity today may be my breakfast tomorrow.
And Jeff Weiner’s “final word” here is not a foregone logical conclusion–many decisions made in an ivory tower can still be “optimal decisions” even if “diversity” is not part of them–diversity is not a silver bullet, nor a guarantee–just as ivory tower thinking is not necessarily a 100% curse.
The larger point you make seems to be that we should question our stereotypes or archetypes that we follow. And I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always thought that job-hoppers at least must be very good interviewers–right?! They keep getting new jobs! We do need to question assumptions, and provide alternate insights as recruiters–just as I’ve done here regarding privilege, diversity, adversity, and our expectations from others.
Thanks for your great comment, and I think you valuably lean back a little when it comes to the rhetoric surrounding diversity. Yes, it is important to look at individuals’ relative struggles within the context of their particular lives rather than make dismissive assumptions, using fraught words like “privilege” carelessly. I think Weiner’s point was that, too often, hiring committees, particularly in Silicon Valley, wind up doing just that by using the shorthand of an educational pedigree and/or a significant tenure at a select organization, as if those will automatically yield quality candidates, regardless of who they are as individuals. “Traditional”–indeed, a vague adjective, dependent on context–can be translated in this case as hires exclusively sourced from this very refined background; in the Valley, at least, as Weiner notes, this limited focus is what amounts to tradition. The point is to find ways to reach resilient talent from all backgrounds, as you affirm in your comment, without resorting to assumptions about those backgrounds.