Friday, December 4, 2020

Recruiting for diversity is not lowering the bar


I believe there are multiple reasons why hiring processes should account for diversity, but I’d like to use this post to address a common counterargument that people raise in discussions about diversity.

The argument typically goes like this: “diversity is important, but we won’t lower the bar”. I believe that this line of reasoning is flawed in a few ways that I’d like to highlight.

The blub paradox

One common source of hiring bias is the inability to recognize or appreciate strengths greater than or different from one one’s own strengths. I would like to make an analogy to Paul Graham’s post on Beating the Averages:

As long as our hypothetical Blub programmer is looking down the power continuum, he knows he’s looking down. Languages less powerful than Blub are obviously less powerful, because they’re missing some feature he’s used to. But when our hypothetical Blub programmer looks in the other direction, up the power continuum, he doesn’t realize he’s looking up. What he sees are merely weird languages. He probably considers them about equivalent in power to Blub, but with all this other hairy stuff thrown in as well. Blub is good enough for him, because he thinks in Blub.

The above bias that people apply when evaluating programming languages also applies when evaluating candidates! People naturally prefer to hire people who share similar strengths, because they recognize and appreciate the value of those strengths. However, when confronted with strengths different from their own they may not interview for those strengths or even recognize them as strengths at all. Quite the opposite: they may view the candidate as “weird” or “not a culture fit” for not cultivating the “right” strengths.

The notion of a “hiring bar” presumes that candidates can all be ordered on a line and those on one side of some cutoff should not be hired. This linear metaphor reinforces our biases around hiring candidates whose strengths align with our own: “Let’s take what I’m good at, and aim to hire somebody who is at least 10% better at that”.

Overcoming adversity

“Diversity hires” can also be much stronger than you appreciate, even when you evaluate them according to strengths that you are trained to recognize.

This is because underrepresented minorities often have to swim upstream against institutionalized discrimination and work harder just to reach the same accomplishments and milestones as their majority peers. A minority candidate can outperform your initial impression of them if you can remove these discriminatory barriers within your workplace.

Recruiting diverse candidates does not lower the bar

This post explains the concept well:

First, the idea that reaching a more diverse talent pool requires lowering the bar on quality reflects an insidious form of prejudice: somehow the pool of talent is thought of as a monolithic block, the top of which is predominantly white and male; it is only by going farther down from the top that more diverse candidates can be found. In reality, companies that struggle to attract diverse candidates are probably not making the effort to look in the right places.

Recruiting underrepresented minorities does not dilute the talent pool, unless you assume that you are already interviewing the best of the best (unlikely). In reality, you’re likely recruiting people who are easiest to find: those who already share the same professional networks and backgrounds.

This sort of bias minimizes recruiting costs, but at the expense of diversity and also the expense of the quality of hires. Explicitly recruiting for diversity challenges your recruiting process to expand beyond its comfort zone, increasing the access to talent and the quality of your hires.


  1. ---
    title: 'Re: Recruiting for diversity is not lowering the bar'
    date: 2020-12-05

    I think much of the backlash against recruiting for diversity comes from the following:

    > Imagine you have a pool of 75 mainstream candidates and 25 “diversity candidates”. Now, 10% of mainstream candidates are suitable for the job and 20% (thanks to overcoming adversity) of diversity candidates are suitable for the job. You only have 5 suitable diversity candidates and they are in high demand to increase diversity so you will be competing with other companies for them. If you do not manage to hire one of the suitable diversity candidate, you will have to choose one of the unsuitable ones to fill the diversity spot, even though you have a more suitable non-diversity candidate.

    This is somewhat synthetic example but I think it illustrates the thought processes of some opponents of diversity hiring quite well.

    Sure, the blub bias is real and diversity hiring might potentially sidestep it, if diversity candidates have different sets of strengths from mainstream candidates but I am not completely sure that is the case. In large enough pool, I would expect similar level of diversity of backgrounds in mainstream candidates and in diversity candidates (talking about ethnic diversity, as it is the most common one used for diversity recruiting).

    I also do not think people mean the “hiring bar” literally – I imagine it is just a metaphor for hiring significantly less suitable but diverse candidate as illustrated above. Though, yeah, I can see how that kind of metric-based thinking could lead to strengthening the bias as well.

    I do not think the Forbes quote really understands the criticism. It might be just as well that the diverse talent is harder to reach due to its smaller absolute size, no prejudice necessary.

    The point about companies interviewing people that are easiest to find is great. If targeting diversity candidates separately increases the size of your talent pool that is a good thing. But as you mention, everything has a cost and it needs to be considered.

    Your conclusion is spot on and we need to mention this more often. Unfortunately, these kind of actions are often presented as flawless and anyone who sees something wrong about them branded evil, even when they might have agreed with the agenda if the trade-offs were discussed.

  2. Like @jtojnar I believe you've picked yourself too weak an opponent (i.e. strawman alert). One version of the "lowering the bar argument" is simply an instance of a family of arguments against affirmative action / positive discrimination, and is simply premised on the idea it's practically impossible to implement positive discrimination in a way that does justice to the competence- and experience-based merit of all parties. It's simply a critique of the incoherence of plans to increase diversity by implementing positive discrimination in a merit-based context.

    1. I think that argument is unrelated to “lowering the bar” one and I find it much less convincing. I doubt that it is even possible to come up with a plan aimed at decreasing injustice that is fair to everyone – most countries still bother with the justice system or democracy, even though their flaws are well documented.

      Of course, it should be possible to discuss the flaws in calm manner and try to evolve the systems for the better, I just do not think it is productive to dismantle any system, be it diversity hiring or democracy, just because it has flaws. Especially, when alternatives have flaws as well.

      And now we have come full circle, to the blub paradox, only with political systems.

  3. Even as we make progress in raising women’s participation rate in the labour market, females are still vulnerable to biased interview questions. Unconscious bias in recruitment impacts female candidates more often as they are subjected to gender bias during job interviews. Read: diversity in recruitment.