When discussing diversity in the context of candidate selection, even those leaders who in principle support Affirmative Action often struggle with the following question: how do we justify selecting a member of a minority (be it gender, race, sexual identity, creed, physical ability, etc.), while rejecting a seemingly more qualified candidate who is a white man?
The next time you hear this argument, here are some reasons why you should reject it.
1. Other Candidates May Have Been Favored For Different Reasons
To a certain extent, complaining about hiring a lesser-qualified candidate is an attempt to appeal to one’s “sense of justice.” However, applying this thinking in a direct comparison between two candidates overlooks the existence of other common biases that favor the privileged. For example, in situations where multiple candidates are evaluated and selected, such as entry-level hiring or college admissions, certain candidates may have been selected because they went to the same school as a senior executive, or perhaps because of a recommendation by mutual friends, even though they may have been less qualified than other candidates who were rejected. Hence if one wishes to appeal to fairness, that same reasoning must be applied consistently, recognizing that various forms of favoritism, which led to the inequities we are seeing today, continue to benefit those who are privileged.
2. Removing Favoritism Is Not Enough To Fix Legacy Imbalances
Even if all forms of favoritism and other biases were eliminated, as we have shown in a previous article it will take an extraordinarily long time to undo the existing imbalances that resulted from legacy biases. And, as long as these imbalances exist, your ability to attract and retain talent will be impaired. Hence if you believe that diversity will give your organization a competitive advantage, it is not enough to remove biases: you have to push actively to increase the diversity of your talent. And that means that a candidate who may seem less qualified to fill a specific role, may nonetheless be more valuable to your organization.
3. Candidate Ranking Is Imperfect
Whether or not you believe that diversity can benefit your organizations, there are quantitative reasons to reject the notion that it is unfair to select less-qualified candidates. First, the notion that anyone can objectively measure and rank the quality of candidates is questionable. This isn’t to say that companies can’t recognize an excellent candidate from a mediocre one, but selection processes are typically based on metrics that are often rooted in qualitative, subjective evaluations, and therefore cannot truly discriminate between two candidates that are not radically different from each other. Even when using a quantitative metric, such as SAT scores and grades, numerical superiority does not guarantee performance superiority.
4. Optimizing Selection Does Not Guarantee Optimal Results
Even if the metrics used to rank candidates were accurate, always choosing the better candidate would not guarantee optimal results. In the field of optimization, algorithms that always choose the best solution at each step are called “greedy,” and there are mathematical proofs that for most real-world problems, greedy algorithms yield sub-optimal solutions. As an analogy, suppose you are walking through a foggy valley, trying to walk to the highest peak in the area: if you only take steps that move you higher than your previous position, you will climb to the top of the first hill you encounter and get stuck, and you may never find the taller peaks that break through the clouds.
5. Direct Comparisons Ignore The Bigger Picture
Leaving aside issues of accuracy and optimization, candidate selection metrics typically focus on alignment with a specific role, but neglect to consider the bigger picture of how that person may contribute to the organization as a whole by balancing the qualities of other employees. An analogy might be financial portfolio management, where a high-yield asset is balanced with an asset that has lower yield, but also lower risk. An example closer to talent management is a baseball team that may choose to trade a promising young pitcher for a catcher to fill an anticipated defensive gap, even though in a direct comparison the pitcher may seem to be more valuable.
6. People Make Bad Judgments When Considering Individual Cases
Finally, research has revealed the existence of cognitive biases that lead experts to make bad decisions when they focus on individual cases, sometimes contradicting the decisions they make when they consider a broader context. Michael Lewis’ recent book, The Undoing Project, describes the groundbreaking work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who showed that these biases affect even leading experts across a variety of disciplines. For example, when asked about the impact of antibiotics on the general population, physicians agreed that overprescribing antibiotics is a bad idea because it leads to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” However, when faced with individual patients, the same physicians would frequently overprescribe antibiotics. Similarly, even leaders who believe in the value of diversity may be lulled into making a bad decision if they focus on direct comparisons between candidates, rather than thinking about the well-being of the entire organization.
Conclusion: Linking Diversity To Performance
Asking whether it is fair to reject a better candidate in favor of a lesser-qualified minority candidate is a red herring. A better question would be whether the reasons for choosing any candidate are based on a sound, quantifiable understanding of how the blend of characteristics of your human capital influences the overall performance of your organization. And the only way to answer this question is to understand and quantify the link between diversity and performance.
This article was written by Paolo Gaudiano and Ellen Hunt from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.