Torin Ellis on Building Workforce Diversity
“No matter what diversity is, it’s always lacking.”
That’s recruiter Torin Ellis, talking about why he decided to become a ‘diversity search maverick’.
“I’ve been recruiting for a long time and for all kinds of organizations – sales, telecom, IT, software, Fortune 500, startups – and when you look at their sales teams, when you look at their board of directors, when you look at their leadership: diversity was always negligible.”
Torin, who calls Baltimore home (“this is a phenomenal part of the country”), specializes in diversity recruitment and aims to be a conduit of diversity. He explains: “I connect organizations with top diversity professionals, establishing search strategies that identify the people and practices that will help them deliver better.”
And judging by Intel’s recent $300 million diversity commitment, along with failing-grade accountability reports from big-name companies like Apple (“… Not satisfied with the numbers on this page”), Google (“We’re not where we want to be”) and Facebook (“We have more work to do – a lot more”), workforce diversity is a top concern for employers right now.
How do you address it successfully? When definitions differ, when talent markets are tight, when initiatives threaten to expose failures, when the path forward is unclear?
Torin kindly agreed to a little Q&A …
“Simply put, diversity means something different between you and I.”
What is diversity?
Torin: Simply put, diversity means something different between you and I. You have your experiences, I have my experiences, we bring them to this particular conversation right here – we can both intelligently hold a conversation on any subject – but we’re approaching it from two totally different angles.
So diversity always begins with thought. It involves an organization’s culture and its people and it includes everything else in between.
Why would a business decide to put resources and effort into diversity recruitment?
Torin: There are plenty of residual benefits that can occur for and within a firm that embraces a solid diversity initiative, but the challenge has long been making sure that the case is clearly made.
It has always been hard for companies to define what an effective workforce diversity initiative looks like. And if the leadership doesn’t buy into a strong diversity initiative, then none of it matters. It becomes window dressing.
Just last week, Intel made a huge announcement committing $300 million over five years for workplace diversity. You’re talking a huge amount of money, one of the largest tech companies, taking a big and bold lead in saying “we have to do something about this”. Because all of 2014, that was the problem for so many of the companies in Silicon Valley. For many of them, while they have diversity and inclusion statements on their website, while they have individuals in diversity and inclusion roles, there just hasn’t been a lot of movement in that area.
That’s not to suggest they haven’t been trying, it’s just one of those things where you really have to have the kitchen in order. It requires:
- A really strong initiative,
- A tie-in business case that answers: “why does this make sense?”, and
- Direction from leadership or founder of the organization.
Without those three components, it’s going to be nothing more than just another press release and some window dressing.
“… If the leadership doesn’t buy into a strong diversity initiative, then none of it matters.”
What does a diversity initiative look like? How do you know it’s going to be effective?
Torin: You don’t necessarily know it’s going to be effective, but what you do know is that you’ve planned and put forth a really valiant effort in trying to make sure it looks the way it should look and that people are serious about approaching it.
I’ll give you an example:
There are nearly 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Many companies make the mistake of only recruiting from a handful – the ones that are close to them – and not at all looking at schools that are off the radar, the unfamiliar institutions, the campuses that have huge marketing budgets or Division I sports teams.
Equilar released a report a few years ago and it talked about some of the CEOs from Fortune 500 companies and the schools they came from, and overwhelmingly the CEOs did not attend your top-tier schools. They largely graduated from off the radar schools.
So in order to put together a diversity initiative that makes sense, you need to include a variety of people from a variety of levels inside of your organization. You need to be very thoughtful and willing to explore, push even, boundaries of the past. And I believe, through that effort, you can have a really successful diversity practice.
“There are nearly 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Many companies make the mistake of only recruiting from a handful.”
When does a company need to start thinking about this?
Torin: Put simply, the sooner the better. It may not be on day one when you start your organization, but it most certainly needs to be before you go into hyper-growth mode. You need to have a complete recruitment strategy in place and that strategy should include diversity.
We have Fortune 50 companies – still, today – that have a severe lack of diversity. That means they’ve ignored it for what? Decades? Or that they haven’t been successful at it for decades?
What’s the first thing they should do?
Torin: It starts with the thought. They’ve got to recognize that “we have an issue”.
I don’t mean ‘issue’ in a negative way, just: “we have this great recruitment strategy in place, but what we’ve failed to include is what diversity looks like inside our organization some X time from now”.
So I think the first step is making sure that once companies acknowledge this issue; that they’re willing to bring to the table a variety of voices. And it’s okay to bring in your customer to help with that. Invite them to help you strategize and talk about what it’s like to be well-received in the market.
I worked with an organization that was putting up posters at historically black colleges and universities. The posters highlighted a phenomenal message, but the pictures – the people – were all Caucasian. And that didn’t resonate well with the students. It took the organization years to recognize: “wow, we were wondering why we’re not receiving a lot of action through our poster campaigns”. It’s because people would walk by the poster and not respond to it.
So I think as an organization – large or small – you must bring a variety of thoughtful voices into the equation so that you explore a thorough strategy that makes sense for your recruitment.
“Put simply, the sooner the better.”
What kind of mistakes do you see organizations making, with their diversity strategy and in their efforts?
Torin: They fail to consider the wider landscape of talent that exists, and they allow their biases to keep them paralyzed. They ignore the contributions that others, who are different from them, have to offer.
A good example: I had a leader back in my pre-recruitment days – when I was leading one of the top, most successful, sales teams in the country – who said: “we can’t trust a man with hair on his face”. I had a beard. So despite having proven myself, this particular director was clinging to his biases.
Do companies in different industries – or different stages of growth, or different locations in the country, or different locations around the world – need to approach their diversity strategy differently?
Torin: Absolutely, there are different ways to tackle it. Diversity is really no different than establishing a recruiting strategy: there are guiding principles and processes, but the details are always different for each engagement.
So an organization that is in startup-mode is going to recruit and approach diversity far differently than an organization that is in growth-mode, far different than an organization that has been around for five years.
All of that is going to change when we look at recruitment in the United States versus recruitment over in Dubai or down in Guatemala. As we move around, the meter is different. There’s religious diversity, political diversity, age and gender diversity. There are so many different aspects of diversity. It is so very broad of a spectrum, that people just really have to be willing to tackle it, and you have to be willing to tackle it for what it’s worth in your particular environment.
The bottom line is: diversity is absolutely important no matter who or where you are, but the strategy will always look different for every different organization.
“Diversity is absolutely important no matter who or where you are, but the strategy will always look different for every different organization.”
What companies, in your opinion, are doing a good job of creating workforce diversity?
A small company here in Washington D.C. that does a very, very good job of addressing diversity is Allied Communications. I think two larger companies that do a very good job are Ameren with its corporate diversity program and HP with its ‘Global Diversity & Inclusion’ initiative.
But there are so many companies that are doing a great job, I don’t feel like I can list them all. There really are some really great people out there doing some really good work around diversity.
Connect with Torin
“I’d really like to encourage anyone who’s interested to reach out to me so that we can discuss diversity,” says Torin.
“If you’re thirsty for an effective approach towards a strong initiative, you want to talk about your strategy, or you need a recruiter who handles it, let’s connect. It’s an issue that’s important, and it’s important for us all as we grow our businesses.”
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