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Hiring for Diversity: From Intent to Impact

In this conversation, I spoke with Arthur Woods, an author and co-founder of the company Mathison which is on a mission to build organisations that are representative of the communities they employ and serve.

S?: Welcome to The Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hello there, thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. I'm really excited to be joined today by Arthur Woods, who is the co-founder of Mathison and also the author of a really great book called Hiring for Diversity: The Guide to Building an Inclusive and Equitable Organization. And Arthur established the business Mathison because he wanted to envision a world where workforces equally represented society, so I think that's a great mission to go after as a diversity and inclusion practice. I run my own diversity and inclusion practice as well, so that's something that really resonated with me. So Arthur, it's lovely to see you today, thanks for joining me.

Arthur Woods: Thank you for having me, Toby, it's lovely to see you too. I appreciate you inviting me on.

Toby Mildon: So we've got loads to talk about today looking at inclusivity in the labour market, how employers are defining diversity and inclusion and setting goals, and when bias is most commonly coming up in hiring, and we've got so much to get through. But before we get into the juicy content, could you just introduce yourself a bit further, and I suppose what inspired you to set up Mathison, and why is your business called Mathison as well?

Arthur Woods: Yeah, thank you, Toby. Well, for me, I grew up in a single-parent family, discovered halfway through college that I was gay, I was in the LGBTQ community, and also found myself wondering how I would represent aspects of my identity such as being in the LGBTQ community in my professional career. And in one of my very first job interviews, I overheard an interviewer use a homophobic slur, and I found myself really shut down in that hiring process, and as a result, I didn't come out for a few years in my first job. And I just remember distinctively that feeling of being not safe, of not really being my full authentic self at work, and how honestly devastating that was and distracting, and I began to become very excited about how we can build environments that are inclusive, that represent society at all levels, and witnessed first-hand how much organisations were struggling with that.

Arthur Woods: So my career has had this nice ebb and flow of non-profit advocacy work and the pursuit of building technology for humanity. And a few years ago, we had the opportunity to launch Mathison. It was named after Alan Turing, his middle name was Mathison. And Turing, I think as many folks know, was famous for helping crack the Enigma code in World War II, and yet despite his enormous achievements, faced persecution at the end of his life, actually for also being gay. And we, I think like you, Toby, really believe in a world where what makes us each unique is not a weakness, but it's a strength, and we dream of a workforce that really equally represents the rich diversity of society at all levels, so that's really our mission at Mathison.

Toby Mildon: That's brilliant. That's very much in alignment with my vision or mission, because my clients often talk to me about diversity, and what we tend to talk about more and more is actually representation, and how representative the organisation is of the customer base that it serves, or the city in which operates and draws its talent from, so it's a very useful thing. So we've had a year of a lot of change going on in the labour market, and it's looking even more chaotic than it did. So what does the landscape resemble for organisations trying to grow diversity, do you think?

Arthur Woods: Well, you know, Toby, what's so interesting about at the moment we're in, and I think we can almost re-evaluate this on a weekly basis, because it feels like the world is just constantly changing right now, so much, but if we think about the events of the last two years, we've been in a global pandemic, I think we've witnessed first-hand in a much more visceral way the racial and, honestly, socioeconomic inequities that have faced our world since day one, but we've been brought so much closer to it than ever before. Diversity has never felt more urgent for most employers, and yet now we're facing a potential down economy, down market where in many cases, that diversity commitment and those diversity priorities are getting challenged by a lot of what's just happening in the broader world, and so it felt like it's never been more urgent, yet, in many cases, more challenging.

Arthur Woods: And so we really believe that there's no lack of intent, there's no lack of agreement around the why, but we're in this really exciting moment where employers have to start thinking about how they go from intent to impact, and that's... I think we're in a moment now where we can move from conversation to action, and leaders are ready for that, and I know you're seeing that in your consulting as well, right?

Toby Mildon: Yeah, it's funny, I like how you put intentions to impact, 'cause when I first sets up my consultancy company, one of my first engagements was to do a half-day workshop with the senior leadership team of a global travel company, and their thing was... Or their brief to me was, how can we move from positive intentions to positive impact, and that was actually the kick-start to a lot of the work that I've started to do and how I've kind of created my inclusive growth model as a result of that intention to impact, which is really cool. So how are employers traditionally defining diversity and setting goals, and then how do you think we can reframe this to be more intrusive of underrepresented communities that maybe are not on the radar?

Arthur Woods: Thank you so much for asking that, Toby, because it's a pretty fundamental building block of this work. One of the most visceral insights from the research and the work that we did for our book was centred around the idea of how we fundamentally define diversity, and we found that a lot of leaders have looked at diversity through a very optical lens based on what they believe they can see, and inferring a community that someone's in and oftentimes limiting diversity only to aspects of race and gender. And what we have seen more than ever is that there are so many different dimensions of diversity that are invisible and intersectional, so it's been wonderful, and thanks to your amazing leadership to ensure that the disability, the neuro-divergent communities are equally held in our definition.

Arthur Woods: Older experienced workers, refugees, immigrants, the formerly incarcerated community, many groups that have systemically been left out of the equation, and in fact, many organisational policies have been written to leave them out of the equation. So we wrote about 12 different unrepresented job seeker communities in the book, and any time I present the model or the definition, one of the first things I call out is that this taxonomy will be expanded even more in the next 10 years. I think we're going to see potentially socioeconomic diversity, religious diversity, so many different aspects brought to the equation, and to me, it's just a reminder that there is always another community to better understand, there's always another barrier to internalise and come to terms with, and as practitioners in this work, our awareness and advocacy will just constantly be expanding, we're sort of permanent students in the work.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, it's continuous work, and diversity and inclusion is not a project, it doesn't have a beginning and an end, it's a way of being, it's a way of successfully operating a business. I often just describe to my clients that diversity is a bit like this iceberg where you can see 10% of the iceberg above the water line, and those are our visible characteristics, so it could be our ethnicity, physical or visible disabilities, and things like that, but then there's so much that makes us different and unique that's hidden under the water line, and this could be more traditional aspects of diversity, like whether we're part of the LGBT community or even things like whether we're introverts or extroverts. So many of my clients have said to me that they've noticed that it's the extroverts that are rising to the top of the organisation, and that we need to be creating those safe spaces for introverts to be able to contribute and speak up either.

Arthur Woods: Yeah, it's a great point. And part of this, the danger of us having this kind of professional archetype, which has been historically defined, sort of the professional success, has created a very homogenous persona of what it means to be successful in work, and that has largely been... It's been built around the extroverted white male straight type A leader, and we built that persona and society has reinforced it in Hollywood, has reinforced it, and it's no surprise that most executives are white straight men, and it's a really wonderful time in the world where we're embracing uniqueness and diversity, and we're really celebrating the fact that we have to have representation in all aspects of work, and what it means to be a professional in the historic sense is now disrupted by hopefully many different personas, some of which are introverts. And I think that's a wonderful thing for us to be bringing to the forefront here.

Toby Mildon: So obviously you wrote the book Hiring for Diversity, and we can't not talk about bias within the hiring process. So where do you see bias most commonly coming up in the hiring process, and how do you think employers can meaningfully address this?

Arthur Woods: Well, I'm so glad that you asked that. If we think about the number of steps and decision points throughout the hiring process and we even visually map it out, it becomes really clear all of a sudden that there are so many different decision points which involve gut, intuition and essentially attributing value or not attributing value. And so we've written about the fact that now there are over 180 biases and growing, there's a bias essentially for every single decision point, and we think about how subjective and potentially unstructured many of these decisions are.

Arthur Woods: And a couple of the critical points that we found where bias can show up. One is around actually how we scope the job to begin with, how we define the role requirements. And one of the things that happens we find quite often is we envision the perfect candidate, again, this gets back to this persona, and we start to think of, well, the perfect candidate would have all these credentials and all these pre-vetted requirements and would come from the perfect school, and all of a sudden we realise we've layered in a number of requirements that may have nothing to do with someone's success on the job, but the way that we've layered these in, we've actually limited our pool to a quite homogenous community that we can recruit from, right?

Arthur Woods: And this is an area where, again, bias can show up because we're not sort of thinking holistically about lived experiences and diversity of someone's background that might show up in very different ways from a credential standpoint. So that's an area where we find there's a ton that we need to do. The other piece that we discovered is around the interview process. So the interview process is where we spend really the majority of our time with candidates, it's usually where we make the decision, and for many leaders, it represents the least structured part of the hiring process, because they make up interviews as they go, and in many cases, they don't know what they're going to even ask a candidate as they're walking into that interview. So we really discovered that we have to slow down and be structured in the way that we interview, we need to be intentional, and ideally we need to follow a rubric so that we're interviewing consistently.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. And what you're saying is just really practical, sensible stuff, it's about planning, organising, going in prepared, trying to make things as objective as possible and not relying on our kind of subjective biases. As we coast through the day, we use our kind of system 1 thinking, don't we, which is where we go with our intuition and our gut reactions rather than think about things in a much more objective fashion.

Arthur Woods: It's absolutely right, and if we have a brain, we have bias, because as we all know, we're making so many decisions every single day, our brain can only consciously process a fraction of those decisions based on the pure amount of information that we're processing. So I think this idea of there's been somewhat of a reputation of bias as though it's this thing we can rid ourselves of, and the truth is we will just constantly make involuntary decisions. But to your point, Toby, if we can slow down and be structured and thoughtful and intentional, it does mean that we're hopefully making decisions in a much more equitable way.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. A lot of my clients talk to me about attracting and sourcing talent, so they say things like, We're so focused on getting diversity in the organisation, but the talent pool is just not very diverse. It might be that they are operating in an industry where there perhaps is a bit of lack of diversity, so for example, a technology client might say that it's a very kind of male-skewed industry, and there's not enough women to recruit, and it's kind of a limiting... I find a bit of a limiting mindset, because I know for a fact that that talent is out there and it is available. So how do you think that employers should rethink their kind of strategic or sustainable way to expand their diverse sourcing, particularly given the limited amount of time and capacity that hiring managers are often facing at the same time.

Arthur Woods: Yeah. The first piece is really to become holistic and intentional about how we are defining diversity. So we would say, first and foremost, let's have that intentional conversation with our teams about the different under-represented communities we can possibly source from and recruit and let's start there, that's foundational. Next, it's to really get our full community at the organisation involved in this process. If we think about the collective network of everyone in our organisation in terms of their sourcing and their reach, their referrals, we already have a collective wider reach within our existing community, and we just need to really activate that and create mutual ownership.

Arthur Woods: And the third is that we see that there are thousands at this point of community organisations, networks that we can tap into, workforce development agencies, membership organisations, universities that we can build reciprocal partnerships with, and these can become pipelines. It all really starts, though, with us expanding how we look at what it means to be qualified for a job. If we continue to just recruit from this homogenous pool where these requirements are so exorbitant that no one from a previous lived experience or under-represented community could possibly qualify, we're going to continue to have a very homogenous workforce. But if we're beginning to think about transferable skills and ways that people can learn on the job, and maybe have come from somewhat of an unconventional background, but gain a lot of that professional experience in the job itself, that's when we start to see the ability to cast a much wider net.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, I'm glad you said that, it reminded me of a time when I was working at the BBC, and I was working with a hiring manager who needed to hire a software engineer. And we went through his job description, which by the way, was about six pages long to begin with, so way too long, and like everything you've said beforehand about having this kind of maybe fixed idea about who should be a suitable fit for that role, so... Well, first thing was we had to reduce the job description down from like six pages to one page.

Arthur Woods: Oh, my goodness, yeah.

Toby Mildon: At the top of his list, he was like, I need somebody who's like a brilliant JavaScript developer. And I challenged him on that and I said, Is that really what you're looking for? And after a bit of kind of to-ing and fro-ing, he said, Actually, what I need to somebody who is a really quick learner, because the technology is changing so quickly that what I need is somebody who can learn new languages really fast. And so we actually changed the recruitment process to focus on somebody's propensity to learn.

Arthur Woods: Oh, I love that. Yeah.

Toby Mildon: And they unlocked so much potential in our talent pipeline at the time, because we were... We were now looking for somebody different, we weren't looking for somebody who had, say, more of a traditional background and experience in JavaScript, but we were looking for somebody's ability to learn quickly and be agile and flexible and things like that.

Arthur Woods: And that is exactly the way that we have to be thinking about this, which is hiring for potential and hiring based on competencies that could have been learned through a multitude of avenues, in the moment that we're, to your point, Toby, really cutting down what has oftentimes been this really unnecessary set of exorbitant requirements. It is our inclination to expand and add more, and every time we add more unnecessary things, we again really restrict that pool. So I really loved your point about cutting down... It's like, less is more, right, and less is more equitable, honestly.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. In your opinion, who has typically been driving the diversity and inclusion agenda in businesses, and how can we begin to engage more people and hiring managers and playing a critical role in hiring for diversity?

Arthur Woods: Yeah, it's a great question, and this is part of what excites me right now. To date, this conversation in many organisations has been driven by the people team, the HR team, in some cases, there have been dedicated heads of diversity, but the biggest thing we see that has to happen and that we really try to leave as the final call to action in our book was we have to have collective ownership and responsibility of increasing diversity and equity inclusion across the organisation. If this work continues to only be led and owned by one or two select people in an organisation, it really won't be sustainable.

Arthur Woods: And what we've seen happen, and Toby, I know you work with many heads of diversity, is they will oftentimes be asked by their broader organisation, Hey, you need to go figure this out for us, go and prove our diversity. And you're not going to be given any resources, any support, any capacity, and it's a fairly impossible task, because if we think about what really has to happen to improve our diversity and equity inclusion, it is that we have to change our systems, we have to change the mindset of our teams and we have to change the behaviour of our collective communities. And that is not something that any one individual by themselves can do, it really takes everyone.

Arthur Woods: So the organisations that I get most excited about when we're working really are the ones that have said, We're in this together, it's a collective action, it will take everyone's perspective, it won't happen overnight, and our people team and our DEI leaders are the catalysts perhaps for the collective ownership that will be across the organisation. And that is really where this work becomes a movement inside an organisation, is when we're all in it together, we all do it, advance it together, and you know, it's sustainable.

Toby Mildon: Fantastic, yeah. I kind of talk about the same thing in my book, there's a whole chapter on collaboration, and the kind of the key takeaway is that it's not just the HR department's responsibility for D&I, it's the whole organisation, from procurement to marketing, to the people running your offices or the facilities management team, everybody at all levels and all departments need to be involved.

Arthur Woods: That is exactly right, that's exactly right. And it becomes so much also more enjoyable when we're all in it together and it is a collective action. I think this work shouldn't create stress and frustration, but sadly it has for many, and that's what really has to change.

Toby Mildon: So the question that I ask everybody when they come on this podcast, and I can't let you off the hook on this one, is what does inclusive growth mean to you.

Arthur Woods: Yeah, I love the question. Inclusive growth for me is constantly being open and inquisitive and curious about gaining new perspectives and understanding other people's lived experiences, and understanding other people's systemic barriers that they've faced, and I think the more that we as leaders are just constantly asking that question and hearing different perspectives, I think we really gain empathy for other challenges that individuals have faced since the beginning, and I think that makes us much more equipped to address those challenges in the way that we operate and the way that we lead.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Now, obviously, I would highly recommend to the person listening to us right now that they go and get your book, Hiring for Diversity, but if they also want to learn more about the work that you do and follow you and reach out to you for further support, what should they do?

Arthur Woods: Yeah, it's a great question, Toby. So we'll share a link to our website mathison.io. We support organisations in their diversity recruiting, sourcing, reducing bias in their systems, and measuring and tracking their progress, and we have some software that helps organisations, so they can learn about that at mathison.io. And of course, they can find our book at hiringfordiversity.com, and definitely encourage folks to join the community and join the conversation with us.

Toby Mildon: Wonderful. Well, Arthur, thank you ever so much for joining me today.

Arthur Woods: Thank you, Toby. Thank you for all the work that you lead. It's such an inspiration.

Toby Mildon: You're welcome, you're welcome. Well, thanks back to you as well. And yeah, the more people we can get working on this, the better, so thank you for joining me today, it's been... I've really enjoyed our conversation.

Toby Mildon: And thank you for tuning in to hear Arthur and I talk and converse. Today, hopefully, you've enjoyed our conversation and taken away some interesting advice or things that you can do in your own business, so... Yeah, thanks for tuning in, and I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of The Inclusive Growth Podcast, which will be coming up very soon. Until then, take care.

S?: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.

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