No, "diversity" hiring doesn't lower the bar

I've seen it over and over again, from very smart people who I generally respect, so let's lay this out: 

Taking action to increase the diversity of hires your organization makes is not tantamount to lowering the bar for those hires. 

Let's take this step by step. 

You look around your organization, and check the data. Yep, it turns out that, like lots of organizations, white men are over-represented compared to the general population in your area. 

Why is that? 

If you're a good person, you probably do not assume that this is because women or people of color are simply worse at these jobs, or worse at working. If you do think that, well, congrats, I guess we've diagnosed why your org doesn't have a diverse staff. Pretty obvious you're the problem. 

But if you're like most people and believe there's no inherent reason why a black woman would perform at any given job in your organization worse than a white man, what other options are there? 

Let's list them. 

  1. Your organization has a really long and involved application process (resume, cover letter, application questions, writing sample, application form where you have to put in all the same info as on your resume for some reason, personality test, etc), and not only does Nobody Have Time For That, statistically folks who have heavy caretaking responsibilities that limit their available time are disproportionately women, African American or Hispanic, and skew slightly older (average age: 49). So, lengthy processes will tend to filter out more women, people of color, and older folks than they will young white men, without any direct intent from you to filter those demographics out. (Not to mention that lengthy application processes will also filter out a lot of the best candidates for the job, because people with options will "nope" right out of that bullsh*t.) 
  2. You require a college degree for jobs that don't really need it. While college-goers are now slightly more often women than men, there are huge attainment gaps in education for people of color and folks who grew up poor. If you require a college degree when it's not actually necessary for success in the position, you're again tending to filter out more people of color than white people. 
  3. You require a certain number of years of experience for jobs that, again, don't really require it. The above factors, as well as plain old racism and discrimination, mean that hiring rates for people of color tend to be lower across the board, regardless of how well-qualified the applicants are. By requiring very specific experience, as opposed to identifying the skills, knowledge and attributes needed for the job, you compound those discriminatory legacies, because the experience pools you're hiring from have themselves already filtered out well-qualified people who ran into one of the above barriers. 

There are others I could bring up, but this should be sufficient to get you thinking. Those are all barriers to entry for lots of jobs for lots of people who are being rejected for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their actual aptitude for the job. 

So, the question is: If someone told you that you were unintentionally rejecting tons of people who could have performed excellently in a given position, would you be concerned?

Of course, you should be. Aside from any question about diversity or Affirmative Action or inclusion or any moral ideas of right and wrong, any good business owner or hiring manager should be deeply concerned about the possibility of missing out on exceptional talent for reasons that have nothing to do with that talent's ability to excel on the job. 

And when you add in "oh, by the way, a lot of those candidates you're rejecting are women and people of color, specifically" that should be alarming to you. If you're not a racist or sexist person, why would you be OK with running a hiring process that demonstrably discriminates against several demographics of people, that also causes you to reject well-qualified applicants? 

This is what the field of diversity, equity and inclusion is all about. It's not about "lowering the bar" to hire less qualified people for the sake of diversity stats. It's about examining why those folks aren't applying to your organization in the first place, any why you're intentionally or unintentionally rejecting them even when they'd do a bang-up job. 

Race-blind hiring isn't actually race blind. We have heaps of evidence of this. We also have tons of evidence that diverse organizations get better results. If your gut response to initiatives to increase diversity is "we should hire the best person, period, regardless of race" it's worth considering whether your methods of hiring are really doing that. 

For more info, this Joelle Emerson piece is a must-read for anyone who does any kind of hiring, anywhere, basically.