Prior to co-founding Thrive, I worked at Berlitz where I led the development of assessments and online training courses that helped leaders develop the skills necessary to create diverse and inclusive workplaces. I saw first hand the imperative role that executives played in building truly diverse and inclusive companies and teams. That experience was vital in the development of Thrive, and continues to influence the future functionality of the product.

The moral imperative for fostering a more diverse and inclusive workplace is obvious, but there’s an economic argument for diversity and inclusion (D&I), as well. A 2017 McKinsey study concluded that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile. Companies with more ethnically and culturally diverse executives were 33% likelier to financially outperform the national industry median.

Amid a worldwide movement for racial equality, more and more companies are publicly committing to a renewed focus on D&I. Some are even announcing new hiring policies requiring that minority candidates be interviewed for every open position. 

In our most recent roundtable discussion with executive search leaders, we discussed the role that recruiters play in helping create diverse workforces and inclusive company cultures.

Revamp your search process to cultivate diverse candidate pools

Recruiters we spoke with said that some companies bluntly stated their preference for a talent pool in which 50% or more of the candidates represented minority groups, while others had no specific requirements. But whether it’s a client request or just a standard that executive recruiters set for themselves, successful talent discovery of candidates from diverse backgrounds requires a concerted effort.

Executive search teams need to leverage their networks and referrals in a new way. Ask individuals from underrepresented backgrounds to refer their connections. Research reputable LinkedIn groups dedicated to diversity to identify emerging leaders. If your search management system allows candidates to opt in and provide their demographic information, be sure the data can easily be called on in future searches.

In addition to sourcing more diverse candidate pools, find ways to eliminate bias from the rest of the search management process. 

“We focus on minimizing bias throughout the entire recruitment process,” said Nicole Kamaleson, managing director for Koya Leadership Partners. “We try to position profiles that are blind so recruiters aren’t looking at zip code, college names, year of graduation, and so on.” 

Removing demographic information from candidate profiles is a practical solution to mitigate bias. Recruiters should be trained to screen candidates blindly, by reading resumes and talking on the phone while checking their assumptions throughout.

Leverage diverse hiring teams to bring more unique perspectives to the search process and help ensure that the most qualified candidate is chosen. 

“If you want a diverse slate of candidates, ensure your search committee is itself diverse,” Kamaleson added.

A more balanced hiring team can also reassure candidates that the organization is genuinely committed to diversity and inclusion. 

Lastly, consider your region’s unique demographic concentration, and set diversity goals that are aggressive yet attainable. Gauge your performance by creating dashboards and set up a regular reporting cadence to quantify progress.

Educate your team (and clients) on the influence of bias

No D&I initiative can fully succeed unless everyone involved understands and appreciates the positive impact that diverse perspectives can have on an organization. Company leaders, hiring managers, and executive recruiters need to know that diversity goals are not about meeting a quota but about leveraging different viewpoints and experiences to add value to the organization. 

Executive search leaders need to instill that mind-set in their recruiters, and then train them to recognize bias and limit its influence. Free resources are available to educate employees on issues like unconscious bias and cross-cultural communication.

“It’s important for recruiters to be aware of their biases and actively work to mitigate them,” said Kamaleson. “One client admitted to having an affinity bias and, after acknowledging it, took a step back and asked others to make recommendations.” 

Several tactical suggestions emerged from our roundtable:

  • Refrain from using language such as “cultural fit” or “there’s a style issue,” and instead focus on what value a person could add to the organization and its culture. 
  • Change the dialogue around sensitive topics. For example, instead of asking bluntly about age, ask clients whether they are looking for an “up and comer” versus an “experienced ambassador.”
  • Set ground rules for what to do when people observe bias in action. 

Education and training on D&I isn’t just a one-time presentation. Executive search teams and company leadership must commit to being students on the topic, and actively strive to improve. Though it might be a decent investment for small and mid-sized companies, data clearly indicates a moral and financial return on the investment. 

“We’re seeing more family-owned and privately held businesses put more focus on diversity and inclusion,” reported Kathryn Hoover, COO and managing partner at The Nautical Group. “I don’t believe it’s because they feel like they have to, but that they truly see the value in different perspectives, backgrounds, and wanting to upgrade their leadership.”

Foster an inclusive culture to retain diverse talent

For executive search teams, the focus is largely on sourcing and managing a diverse pool of candidates. But most D&I initiatives are doomed if they emphasize only diversity in the hiring process and make no effort to foster an inclusive company culture. 

“Until and unless the culture is inclusive, diverse talent is not sticky,” author Anuranjita Kumar told Executive Talent magazine. “If you look at the data . . . the attrition tends to take two or three years into the organization.” 

Retention suffers when diverse talent is relegated to junior-level roles or when the corporate culture makes it clear that employees from underrepresented backgrounds are rarely promoted. Diversity can thrive only in an inclusive work environment, where all employees feel recognized and respected.

In-house executive recruiters should make sure that their company implements inclusion programs—and that everyone in leadership fully buys into them. Similarly, executive search firms should offer to provide clients with resources or training around best practices for inclusive companies. While that may feel like something that’s outside the usual purview of executive search, it shows you take diversity and inclusion seriously, and want the most qualified candidates to be successful at your client’s company.

“D&I is a complex and multifaceted topic,” said Deepti Mangla Shirsalkar, director of executive search at Foundation Medicine. “It needs to be tackled from all angles, from hiring at all levels (executive and below), performance management, and overall retention programs. It’s not just about hiring diverse talent but making sure there are programs and processes in place for all employees to feel valued and heard during their tenure.”

Not all of those programs and processes can be implemented by executive recruiters, but they still have an important role to play.

Meaningful change must come from the top down

Company leadership bears the most responsibility for spearheading diversity and inclusion initiatives. Presidents and CEOs need to change the conversation from “hitting quotas” to effectively and clearly communicating how diversity has made their businesses better.

But there’s also a lot of hard work for executive recruiters to do, beginning with learning to acknowledge their own implicit biases. Teams then need to put into place talent discovery processes that, over time, will make sourcing diverse talent pools easier and more efficient.

Technology can, and should, be leveraged to help recruiters identify diverse talent and prevent bias in the search process. Thrive has invested in solutions to address these concerns, and we continue to listen to our customers and prospects to further enhance our capabilities. As a testament to our long-standing commitment to D&I, Thrive is helping a company (currently in stealth mode) to create a transparent marketplace that opens up executive search to all qualified executives with a focus on women and underrepresented minority candidates.

At its core, Thrive was founded with diverse and inclusive workplaces in mind, and will continue supporting the executive search industry with best practices and product offerings.