Recently, a professor wrote an open letter criticizing a new hiring policy at his university that stated preferential treatment should be given to people of color. The policy was vague. Hence the criticism was also vague. This raised the question, does diversity in hiring result in lower quality staff members? The answer is, it depends on how one interprets "diversity in hiring."
Note: This episode does not address the "should" questions associated with hiring policies. There are strong arguments for and against ensuring a diverse staff even at the expense of quality. These arguments include ideas such as reparations, institutional racism/sexism, and privilege, all of which are controversial and polarizing.
First, let's define what a "diverse staff" means, or should mean. Diversity is defined as "showing a great deal of variety." But what if variety does not exist demographically? Imagine that you run a ballet dance camp for little girls in Detroit, Michigan. You have a staff of 10 people. What would that staff look like if diversity were ignored in the hiring practice? It would be largely influenced by the geographical and industry demographics. In Detroit, approximately 82% of citizens are Black and 12% are White. There is a disproportionate number of women ballet dancers to men, and virtually no (professional) ballet dancers are handicapped. So given a standard statistical distribution, the staff is likely to consist of about nine women, eight of whom are Black, and one Black man, none of whom are handicapped. In terms of "showing a great deal of variety," diversity tends not to be reflected in hiring where the candidate demographics are not diverse. This lack of diversity among job applicants could pose a problem when it comes to staff quality but doesn't have to. This depends on what approach to diversity we take.
We can take two general approaches to diversity. We can either judge the ethics of the organization by the results (i.e., the diversity of the staff) or judge the ethics of the organization by the hiring practice (e.g., all else being equal, choosing the candidate that would add more diversity to the staff). If we judged the ballet camp by the results, we can say that they do not have a diverse staff (remember, diversity refers to variety, not minority), thus unleash the rage machine on them (e.g., "they must be racist and sexist!"). If we judged the ballet camp by the hiring practice, assuming they did make their best effort to add diversity based on the candidate's qualifications, then they can be hailed as a beacon of diversity excellence.
These two approaches might also be considered the "equality" and "equity plus" approaches, respectively. "Equality" meaning that there should be an equal number of members of races/sexes/sexual orientations, etc. on the staff and "equity" meaning that each person, no matter to which group they belong, has the same opportunity to get the job. The "plus" refers to the preference given to the candidate who adds diversity to the staff, all things being equal. The "equality" approach is likely to lead to a lower quality staff simply because the pool of available qualified candidates is smaller. For example, if the ballet camp is looking to hire a White male to fill its diversity quota, and out of 100 applicants only three where White males, the camp would have a 3/100 chance of hiring the highest quality candidate. If race/gender/sexual orientation, etc. did not matter, the camp would have a 100/100 (100%) chance of hiring the highest quality candidate. The "equity plus" approach would not lead to a lower quality staff because no candidate is excluded from consideration based on their group' s physical or social characteristics. Given the fact that there does tend to be strong biases in hiring (unconscious and conscious), making a conscious effort for diversity, all other things being equal, seems to me like a good idea.
So does diversity in hiring result in lower quality staff members? It depends on what we are basing diversity (i.e., demographics or simply an equal number of members from each group) and if "diversity in hiring" is judged by the results (equality) or the practice (equity). Any time the pool of available candidates is reduced, it is likely to result in a lower quality staff. However, by simply giving preference to certain candidates, all other factors being equal, there would be no reduction is staff quality. Again, the question as to whether equality-based hiring practices should be implemented regardless of any immediate negative effect on staff quality is a different question with many value-based factors that need to be considered. Let me know what you think in the comments below.
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