53 - What’s missing in how we hire?



Conversations around workplace diversity are often hot potatoes. But they miss a crucial ingredient: the potato.

You’re at the bazaar. You’ve enough money to buy just one choice of vegetable. What will it be? Chances are you’ll go with the potato. All season, all-rounder, has a bit of everything you need.

Cut to: a week later at the bazaar. You’re still looking for just one type of vegetable. What do you do? The humble potato, again.

After two weeks of a potato diet, you’re back. But this time you decide to buy two weeks’ worth of stuff (you’ve discovered the wonder of refrigeration). What do you do? You mix things up. Cauliflowers and cabbage.

When we have just one choice to make, the fear of getting it wrong rules. We ignore putting ourselves in a position to get it right. We go with the conventional, the potato. Because you can’t go wrong with a potato.

This is at the heart of the challenge businesses face in hiring talent. They are looking for diversity but when they go out to buy talent, one at a time, they’re crippled by the fear of getting it wrong. They look for someone who can bring a bit of everything. They look for potatoes–good CGPA with majority undergrad discipline with majority post-grad specialization with good communication skills and a willingness to learn. I’ve been in this situation as a recruiter and it’s hard to look beyond the safest bet.

Here are two ways to work around this problem of too many potatoes.

  1. Batch your hires. When you’re looking to hire one at a time, as the book Alchemy says, you’re seeking conformity. Batching hires allows for complementarity. You can cover all bases, not with every individual but with the group as a whole. Very well, you may say, but who hires in groups? Even hiring two at a time allows you to look beyond the obvious.
  2. Identify the most important thing you’re looking for in each hire. Too many job descriptions look for potatoes. Too many job descriptions can be copy-pasted. If you’re gonna do the same thing as everyone else, you’re gonna get the same results as everyone else. So, make a specific ask. Ask for zucchini, artichoke, or asparagus.

There are two upsides to this hiring strategy: You’ll learn from your hiring practice and iterate better if you’re looking beyond potatoes AND you’re likely to skip past competition that’s in the market for potatoes.

Lack of diversity can be propagated without a shred of racial or gender bias. We can be so fixated on not getting it wrong that we apply identical criteria, look for identical heuristics, and follow identical processes. In doing so, we move the outliers, the ones with spiky world views, the minorities, the strangelings further to the margins. We get closer to the center of the core of all the produce available to us–the potato.

It is no one’s intent. It is everyone’s action.

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