On Diversity Success — Why Bring HR into the Equation?

If you have followed my writing, you know that I cover supplier diversity. Check this article as an example. Accessing it is free, and it’s an article from which I have received extremely positive feedback. It’s focused on the strategic value of supplier diversity in the supply base – the shared value concept – demonstrating why this is critical to all areas of a company as well as to local communities.

My work in supplier diversity also leads to other areas that companies seem to stack together with the former – I’m thinking about HR and their activities. The Wall Street Journal just published an article on this topic: The Trouble With Diversity Initiatives. And Apple was recently written about in Forbes regarding their employee diversity. Forbes ends with a question: Do you think that Silicon Valley is being unfairly targeted for a disproportionate amount of diverse employees compared to other regions or industries in the rest of the nation?

And that sets the tone for this article.

Now, Spend Matters doesn’t have much in the way of HR politics – or even an HR department – so instead let me bring up an example from my (non-white) wife ‘s employer. For over a decade she has worked in mid-management at several major financial securities companies, so her perspective is from the inside of substantial players in that industry.

To the point, on a regular basis she shares stories about the HR contortions she has to contend with regarding hiring and firing (she manages a good number of staff). She tells me that it takes her a minimum of six months to get rid of anyone - and at least a year if the employee belongs to a “protected class” (non-white, female, above a certain age). Yes, she is a strict manager – you either perform or you're out – but she has to be, as the operational support team is thin and without budget for increases. If anyone is not pulling their weight, others have to pick up what doesn't get done. (She herself works ~60-hour weeks.) My wife is staunchly opposed to any affirmative action activities, finding them counter-productive (major efficiency inhibitors) and flat out demeaning. Ironically, those who don't know her tend to judge her by the cover and look to her to lead various "diversity" HR initiatives.

The WSJ article quoted above states:

"he recommends companies combat the perception that minorities and women aren’t qualified by stressing that hiring and promotions are based on merit."

I think this is at the core of the problem – the "perception" that hiring and promotions are not based on merit derive from company policies where it is exceedingly onerous to get rid of non-performing employees who fit into "protected categories" – practically to the point that it's easier to fire a public school teacher than getting rid of a "protected" employee. Inversely for promotions and hiring – there is constant executive pressure to hire and promote women and non-whites. It’s an issue that’s put quite bluntly in planning meetings too, as in “what are you going to do to improve your numbers?” So sure, why would anyone have the "perception" that it is not merit-based?  (that was sarcastic...)

If you read my article (linked above) on supplier diversity in the supply chain, then you know I’m in favor of this initiative.  But I think racial and gender bias in HR is pure poison, regardless of whether it is used to hold people down or to lift them up. Similarly to what I recommend in my article for supplier diversity, it is better for companies to instead focus their efforts on supporting local/urban STEM schools, scholarships, labs, and other facilities– i.e. build for the future, don’t engage in shortsighted and counterproductive tinkering with HR policies.

The WSJ article closes with the ultimate red herring about tech firms: "Silicon Valley companies such as Twitter and Facebook need to be especially careful, Leslie said, since industries that traditionally haven’t had female workers tend to “amplify” stereotypes."

Seriously? I've worked for years in the Bay Area and have worked in management at tech firms there – where I hired programmers and other staff with technical skills. There were precious few females and non-whites (other than Asians and Indians) available – heck, there's even a shortage of Asians and Indians in the Valley! There's certainly no racial or gender bias against anyone there. The Valley has probably the most inclusive culture found anywhere in the U.S., or even in the world. It is all about performance. Pretty much anyone who is familiar with current technology, can write decent code, is reasonably reliable, and can communicate acceptably will get hired somewhere. Really, just look at the appearance (clothing, shoes, facial hair, tattoos, piercings, etc.) of the employees in the tech firms – clearly, how you look is not on the hiring checklist.

I'm an ME engineer myself – and there was all of one female in my graduating class (there were three when we started; two changed to other majors). And statistics haven't changed that much since I went to school – females still don't go for mechanical and electrical engineering degrees, and definitely not computer science degrees. The latter are obviously what tech firms in the Valley want.

In the US, currently not even one of five engineering degrees are conferred on females (of any color) – this is a hard fact. And only one of eight electrical engineers are female. In computer engineering, it's not even 1 in 10! Sure, there may be lots of females in chemical and environmental engineering, but those are not as useful to software companies.

Check this article from the main electrical engineering organization. It’s from a few years ago, but things haven't changed much. In other words, good luck with getting the engineering employee ratio to 50/50 in any tech firm’s workforce anytime soon.

In closing, I've got two young daughters myself – the oldest is 12 – and I'm nudging them in no uncertain fashion in a STEM direction. Don’t get me wrong, liberal arts is great as a lifelong personal passion, but not what we need to fund as an educational focus. And before any reader with a liberal arts degree argues otherwise, look at the raging H-1B visa debate. I have yet to see anyone looking to bring in English, sociology, psychology, history, or other liberal arts majors. Engineering and math – that’s where the need is at, to be blunt.


This is a long-term challenge – it is preposterous to think that this will be resolved overnight. STEM degrees are critical for the long-term success of the nation, and if companies can support this foundational effort, this will deliver results over time. Therefore, what companies are doing in this long-term area ought to be the focus. Fighting over existing limited labor supply just to produce artificial numbers (meaning, not related to core business) is not the way to go.

Real metrics (whether in HR or in Supplier Diversity) need to be focused more on actual impact – and not on artificial results. For example, track US students graduating with STEM degrees in the case of HR – and look at SMWBE growth (in real businesses – no invoice pass-through zero value add games) in the case of supplier diversity efforts.

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First Voice

  1. Rob Jones:

    Tom, your perspective is refreshing. The recognition of “a long-term challenge” and a desire for “real metrics” hits home as valid and reasonable expectations. Resolution is a bit of a Rubik’s Cube, many facets over which the hiring companies can have influence, but often little real control. Thus, as it has been in the tech sector, the “window dressing” programs are used to obscure the internal realities of organizations until they are solidly established and can withstand the winds of public opinion. Even if these companies immediately begin to pursue the most aggressive and ranging worker pipeline solutions, “the fix” would still be between 20 to 50 years away.

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