Companies & Industries

Diversity Pledges Ring Hollow


A new study shows that in spite of corporate promises to promote diversity in senior management, very little progress has been made

The persistent lack of diversity in senior corporate management has many origins, not least of which is the broad lack of diversity among executive headhunters (BusinessWeek, 02/04/08). That's especially unfortunate, since executive search consultants are the very people who could help pave the way for progress.

But when pointing out the profession's need to diversify its consulting ranks, it would be careless and inaccurate to lay the blame on headhunters alone. Indeed, there is apparently a hollow tone to many employers' pledges to increase diversity in their workforce, especially in the higher ranks. True, some hiring organizations reward diversity efforts by paying their executive-search firm partners a fee premium or bonus if their shortlist of candidates for a top management role includes women and minorities.

Some companies engage headhunters who advertise their access to nontraditional candidate streams under the banner of "diversity recruiting specialists." Still other employers have ratcheted up their presence at annual association and alumni gatherings of well-connected female and minority business leaders in an attempt to appear like insiders—or at least like progressive employers who truly care about diversifying their organizations.

To human-resource leaders jaded by their management teams' past attempts to position their companies as diversity leaders, such attempts to engage a more diverse pool of executive talent may seem shallow or ill-conceived. But if these efforts result in greater gender and racial representation in top jobs, they will have been well worth it.

Diversity Policy, Not Practice

However the findings of a recent survey by the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) show a lack of results that make many hiring organizations' self-espoused commitments to workforce- and management-diversity ring hollow.

According to the AESC's BlueSteps 2007 Diversity Report, 76% of 357 global senior executives report their companies have one or no minorities among their top executives, and 56% say their employers have one or no women among their top executives. This lack of diversity at the top exists despite the fact that 54% of the respondents indicated their companies have an official "diversity in the workplace" policy already in place.

A comparison of 2005 and 2007 survey data results finds a slight decline—from 59% to 54%—in the percentage of respondents reporting that their companies currently have an official diversity policy in place.

Good Ole Boys

This lack of progress suggests the entrenchment of the "good ole boys club" and business as usual. It surely also speaks of an apparent lack of accountability on the parts of companies that want outsiders—including shareholders and potential new recruits—to think that their organizations are ahead of the diversity curve.

The tendency is for companies to lament the dearth of highly qualified (code language for someone who has already held the job in another company) women and minority candidates for positions such as chief executive, and to promise to redouble their diversity commitment.

Minorities comprise 17% of the U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and that number is expected to hit 20% by 2016. Women currently represent 46% of the national workforce, and their numbers are projected to grow faster than men's over the next several years.

A key question for the future of diversity recruiting—especially for senior corporate management positions—is, exactly how many of those women and minorities will be recruited or promoted to positions considered good training grounds for future C-suite leaders?

And will companies that continue to fall short of any diversity gains simply stop making promises? Or will they actually do something to make up for the lack of progress?

How Search Firms Can Help

Executive search consultants are uniquely positioned to assist companies to do just that by helping them build management teams that better reflect their current and future customer bases. But I would add that executive recruiters won't be seen for much longer as credible sources for diversity leadership talent unless their own recruiting consultants become more diverse (BusinessWeek, 02/04/08). That's already startlingly clear.

Lori Gleeman, president of Manhattan-based Gleeman Associates, a retained executive search firm that specializes in recruiting talent for executive headhunting firms, says more of them are beginning to acknowledge their own shortcomings where diversity is concerned.

"It is an executive search firm's responsibility to lead from the front and hire diversity candidates and women leaders within their own firms if they expect to tout themselves as a diversity talent supplier," Gleeman says. "We have found that many search firms are now aware of this discrepancy within their firms, and are now making an effort to recruit and retain those players in a variety of practices."

Convincing hiring organizations to take the management diversity issue more seriously would also be a major next step in the right direction. That will undoubtedly take a more concerted effort by all the parties regarding the management recruiting and succession process.

Hiring organizations will have to demand more of their own recruiters and show women and minority candidates how they can grasp more senior opportunities as they build a career within the company. And, as always, executive headhunters will have to employ new tactics to do a better job of finding more diverse business leaders.

Joseph Daniel McCool is a writer, speaker and advisor on executive recruiting and corporate management succession best practices. He is the author of Deciding Who Leads: How Executive Recruiters Drive, Direct Disrupt the Global Search for Leadership Talent, which has been recognized as "one of the 30 best business books of 2008" by Soundview Executive Book Summaries.

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