The Art and Science of Recruiting a Diverse Workforce

By Gina Ruiz

May. 10, 2006

No matter what the reasons are for why employers are trying to bolster diversity in the workplace, one thing is certain: Recruiting minorities is a crucial challenge.

    With the prospect of aging baby boomers retiring and the desire to reflect the increasingly diverse U.S. population, employers will have to rely on minorities more than ever. Collectively, African Americans, Hispanics and other minority groups make up 30 percent of the overall population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

    Perhaps this is why diversity is a serious matter at large companies, such as American Express.

    The company, which has 66,000 employees worldwide, systematically targets minorities at colleges with diverse student populations, reaches out to ethnic organizations and sponsors mentoring programs for minorities, says Henry Hernandez, chief diversity officer for the financial services provider in New York. Kenneth Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express, in 2001 became the first African American to head a Fortune 500 company.

    But diversity for diversity’s sake is not the only reason why companies strive to develop a mixed workforce, says Steve Pemberton, chief diversity officer and vice president for Monster Worldwide, a New York-based online recruitment specialist.

    Employers are also attracted to the fattening wallets of minority consumer groups. Hispanics alone have a purchasing power of almost $700 billion, according to HispanTelligence, a market research specialist.

    Some companies believe that having a diverse workforce facilitates their understanding of minority groups and provides a leg up on the competition when vying for market share, says Martha Ceja, manager of diversity services at Bernard Hodes Group, a talent consulting company based in New York.

    But developing a diverse workforce is easier said than done. Minorities are grossly under-represented in strategic and influential positions in American corporations, according to statistics from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In addition, other issues, like recruiting and retention, also pose big hurdles in diversity management.

    There is no silver bullet for these issues. But the consensus among workforce experts is that if employers really want to tip the scale in their favor, they are going to have to adopt diversity management as part of their mainstream strategy.

    “Companies cannot view diversity as just another program or initiative–it has to be a way of life,” Ceja says.

Going grass-roots
    Working the job fair circuit is not always a fruitful endeavor. While these venues often bring employers and minorities together under the same roof, they do not guarantee that qualified candidates will apply for a job, or, for that matter, even show up at a company’s booth.

    In the grueling game of recruitment, the only foolproof method of success is having a strong corporate image, one that fires up candidates into seeking an employer out by name before actually setting foot in a job fair.

    “The days of participating in job fairs without additional support are over,” Pemberton says. “Smart employers are competing for top-of-mind access among candidates.”

    Offering free pens and stress balls will not help employers attain this goal. But grass-roots efforts and fostering partnerships with ethnic communities could do wonders. Sponsoring special events like parades, Little League games or concerts not only raises awareness about a company, but also lends more credibility to its efforts, Ceja says. “It lets minorities know that an employer cares about their community.”

    A coalition of employers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, including Rockwell Collins Inc. and Alliant Energy Corp., is doing just that. The group is reaching out to cultural and social institutions as well as to businesses and churches in hopes of learning more about diversity and attracting minority talent to the area.

    Entrenching roots in communities is also good because it puts employers in direct contact with influential leaders, which can help to breed a positive image. Many of these leaders can be found in organizations for professionals, such as the National Society of Hispanic MBAs or the National Black MBA Association.

    Sometimes it is the special touches that can make a difference. Merck & Co., known for its creative approaches in reaching out to minorities, hosts mixers for professionals at special locales, such as the African American Museum in Philadelphia. For its part, The New York Times lends its conference space to key professional associations looking for a place to meet after business hours. These are effective ways to establish rapport and collect contact information in a more intimate setting, experts say.

    Employee referral programs are also useful for spreading favorable word-of-mouth about a company. However, employers don’t always get the desired results from these initiatives because they provide little guidance or few meaningful incentives. Human resource leaders have to be proactive in this arena–for instance, by giving employees tips on where to look for potential referees.

    If a worker is a member of a professional organization, such as the Association of Women Industrial Designers, managers can suggest this as an appropriate venue for finding potential candidates. Another way to inject momentum into these referral programs is to offer employees rewards for meeting certain referral goals.

    Aside from grass-roots efforts and the employee referral programs, employers can also rely on good-old-fashioned public relations to build a strong reputation among minorities. For example, companies can create positive buzz by tapping key media sources, such as ethnically oriented magazines and newspapers, to make it known when a minority professional has been hired or promoted to a strategic position.

    However, Pemberton warns companies against spending too much time vying for recognition. Cultivating the image of diversity without actually changing the nuts and bolts of workforce strategy could lead to problems down the road, he says.

    “A lot of the problems with retaining minority employees start at the recruiting stage,” he says.

Holding on to talent
    As challenging as finding qualified minority talent can be, retention is an even more daunting task. Turnover rates often hamper building a critical mass of minorities within an organization. Attrition among minorities has not been formally quantified, but anecdotal evidence from workforce specialists indicates that it is a chronic problem.

    This troubling trend can be mitigated through education, explains Thomas Kochan, professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. But the level of instruction that is required should go well beyond simply promoting acceptance of other cultures and ethnicities.

    “Adults don’t change attitudes,” Kochan says, “but they can learn to be more effective workers with the right skills sets.”

    Employees should be instructed on issues like communicating effectively and conflict management—all tools that provide pragmatic skills for enhancing the dynamic of a group. The emphasis of the training should be helping workers to draw out the talent and creativity in one another, Kochan says.

    Tools like mentoring programs not only lead to better group dynamics by blending people of different backgrounds and levels of experience, but they also aid in the development of minorities. Mentors can offer special tips on navigating successfully within an organization.

    “If minorities see ethnic figures in positions of power, it gives them something to aspire to,” says Irma Davidson, director of talent acquisition at Homestore, an online retailer in Westlake Village, California.

    Centralizing mentoring programs is always a good idea because it makes them more formal, says Elizabeth Holmes, senior vice president and chief learning officer for Roosevelt Thomas Consulting & Training, a diversity workforce specialist in Decatur, Georgia. Mentor programs are also important because they give minorities a platform from which to showcase their skills and voice ideas—which could be instrumental when seeking a promotion. This is one area where most experts agree that employers can drastically improve.

    Lack of career advancement is one of the biggest sources of frustration for minorities, and often a major contributor to high turnover rates, Holmes says. Compared with white males, for instance, it takes minorities longer to be promoted. Formal feedback is a good way to let employees know where they stand and what they need to do to get to the next level of their careers.

    The flow of information should be a two-way street, however, with companies learning valuable lessons from their employees, as well. If handled properly, affinity groups can help employers keep a finger on the pulse of minority groups within an organization. The key to having a successful affinity group is to give them structure and provide guidance, otherwise they run the risk of becoming just another social gathering, Holmes says. In addition to leveraging affinity groups for gauging how minorities think and feel, they are a good way for employees of similar backgrounds to come in contact with one another.

    “They can learn the ropes together and lean on each other,” Holmes says.

    Training and education initiatives should be accompanied by deeper workforce management policies, experts advise. One way to improve the quality of employee development within an organization is to hold employees in influential positions accountable for how they manage talent.

    “The human capital decisions that managers make can have a direct impact on attrition,” Holmes says.

    Equally important is realizing that conflict is bound to emerge within any truly diverse organization. When friction arises, managers should be trained to meet the challenge head on, because denying that it exists will not make the problem disappear.

    “Getting along is nice, but it is not the end goal for employers,” Holmes explains. “Being productive and getting the job done is what’s important.”

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