How to Make "We Just Can't Find Highly Qualified ... " a Useless Phrase in 3 Steps

Step 1 - Invest in (and take every precaution not to exploit) colleagues who already identify with the diversity that is underrepresented in your organization.

If you’ve ever attempted to address the under-representation of black, Latinx, and/or women in any organization through practical means (i.e. by trying to hire more people who identify as black, Latinx, and/or women), then you have likely faced a version of the following response from organizations that under-perform in hiring for such diversity:

“Believe me. We’ve tried but we just can’t seem to find enough highly qualified (insert underrepresented demographic here) that (1) meet our requirements, (2) are in our location, (3) are a good fit for our team, and (4) aren’t being offered other positions.”

I like to call this kind of response to underperforming on diversity the Uninspired Seeker Effect on Less Efficient Search Strategies -- or a U.S.E.L.E.S.S. for short.

A U.S.E.L.E.S.S. phrase leads to recruitment behaviors similar to those my nine year-old once performed when prompted to find matching socks in his wardrobe while getting ready for school.

Such behavior usually involves half-hearted attempts to search locations at random, glancing at and tossing aside stray t-shirts or resumes (whichever side of the analogy you care to focus on) and huffing about in the dark because someone didn’t care to turn on the bedroom light. (Yeesh, kids … and recruiting software training … amiright?)

I've come to understand (as a parent and a recruiter) that my ability to avoid participating in such antics is determined only by my own willingness to prepare for the unknown.

So, for the sake of increasing your company’s diversity and improving your industry performance by a likelihood of 35%, let’s (1) debunk such U.S.E.L.E.S.S. phrases as efficiently as possible and (2) prepare you to make some great hires from promising talent pools your team might not already be connected to.

No Straws, Just Real Data

First, note how the above U.S.E.L.E.S.S. phrase serves as an aggregate of excuses for under-performing on diversity hiring. I’ve taken a bit of a logical shortcut by constructing the phrase to serve as a proxy for similar U.S.E.L.E.S.S. reasonings. However, my proxy statement is by no means a straw man.

In industry surveys conducted by ADP from 2013 to 2015, recruiters said “Lacking the candidates with the right experience” was their greatest challenge to recruiting for diversity twice as often as they pointed out lacking buy-in from hiring managers or senior management as their main challenge. The candidate-blaming is real.

Regardless of how you receive the U.S.E.L.E.S.S. statement above or what assumptions you believe are embedded in it, there are some simple ways to dispose of this kind of thinking and become a more productive recruiter for untapped talent.

Before we get into it, it's important to observe that recruiting best practices indicate that setting specific recruiting goals yields better outcomes in key areas of performance.

So, let’s give ourselves a specific goal and start by focusing on increasing the representation of black men for positions in your company requiring a Bachelor’s degree.

Here we go.

Recommendation #1. Actually incentivize your colleagues who identify as black men to refer candidates from their networks.

This step can also be referred to as “Listen to and trust black people.”

If you are a hiring manager or executive managing a predominantly white organization, you are far more likely to find great candidates who identify as black men if you ask other black men in your company or professional network to refer candidates from their networks to your open positions.

You are most likely to find great candidates who identify as black men if you incentivize other black men in your company or network to refer to your open positions. Which requires you to provide time (in the form of vacation or personal days), money, or some other resource to colleagues who identify as black men in exchange for the time they will take to vet their networks and connect talent with your organization.

But the data shows that, when it comes to referrals, most of us are doing just the opposite -- investing in our fellow white colleagues rather than our black colleagues for talent referrals.

That means more of us need to become intentional about creating a referral programs that incentivize members of untapped, diverse communities within our existing companies or personal networks -- and, in this case, that means creating a referral program that incentivizes black men to refer candidates from their network for open positions.

Ah, yes. I can already hear the psalms of Whiteness rising up like a comments section chorus, “Why are you incentivizing race-based referrals? Why are you only incentivizing black employees for candidate referrals? Isn’t that illegal?”

First, while it is illegal to treat someone unfavorably on the basis of their race during the hiring process, it is definitely not illegal to incentivize strategies that diversify your applicant pools by racial composition when your workforce already lacks representation from people of color. It’s actually following federal regulations.

Second, referral programs work. That’s doubly true for diversity referral programs that engage diverse demographics within your organization. However, employee referral programs that lack specific incentives for recruiting for candidates from underrepresented racial groups actually impede workforce diversification.

What’s the deal with the referral Catch-22?

It's due to the fact that employees in predominantly white organizations refer white candidates for open positions at far higher rates than they do black candidates.

There is a pretty straightforward explanation for this phenomena and it takes the form of a vicious cycle: (1) the increasing segregation within the suburban sprawl that surrounds cities with jobs leads to (2) segregation by geography and access to education which leads to (3) segregation in the workplace and by socioeconomic status which, in turn, (4) leads back to segregated housing patterns.

White people, while seeing some increases in exposure to black people of higher socioeconomic status over the course of decades, still live in highly dissimilar communities, attend dissimilar schools, and work in dissimilar workplaces from black people.

These trends produce a society in which 75% of white folks have zero non-white friends.

Since I prefer to pursue business strategies whose odds of success are at least better than pure chance, when it comes to finding candidates who identify as black men, I’m going to trust black people to help me identify the best candidates first.


Sidebar: Is it possible for white people to recommend great non-white candidates for open positions? Absolutely, it is possible.

Personally, I will always seek to build authentic, equitable friendships across racial identities. I will always favor affordable housing development that helps create and sustain racially diverse neighborhoods. However, I also admit that both of these POV’s are both personal and political, and, therefore, are not an ideal foundation for determining workplace policy.

Also, I also have zero interest in changing people’s personal perspective on race in this article nor am I interested in watching a political flame war break out over housing policy in the comments section.


All that being said, if you are an equal opportunity employer -- and if you are a private business with more than 15 employees, you are required by law to be so -- then the existence of your company is accompanied by an inherent responsibility to pursue a workforce that is representative of the society you live in and the customers you serve.

As a recruiter, it’s my responsibility to advise employers to use the most efficient and effective strategies for building a diverse workforce that is representative of the racial and ethnic composition of our society.

As an employer myself, it is my responsibility to use every competitive advantage I can to hire (1) the best people who will make up (2) the best teams. Racially diverse teams win. It’s just that simple.

Given these responsibilities -- and given the current status of our still largely segregated social networks, education system, and workforce -- your best bet for increasing the representation of black men in your workforce would be to invest in the networks of black male colleagues, who can then take the time to identify the best candidates in their network when a job comes on the market.

Most importantly, keep in mind that this advice is something you can execute on today as a hiring manager or an employer.

Okay, if you really need a list of resources to help you get started developing a diversity hiring incentive plan, here is that list:

  1. Fingertips and/or a voice
  2. The ability to type or pronounce “diversity hiring incentive plan”
  3. Google

You don’t need my assistance to set up an incentive plan for increasing diversity in your organization. The information is out there. You just need the willingness to respectfully take the lead of your colleagues who identify with entire communities of untapped talent.

I’d be ecstatic if this suggestion alone could put me out of business.

Next time - Step 2: What if I don’t have diversity in my organization or personal network at all? How to use geographic data and a listening tour to create an effective recruitment event.