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Eileen Dooley is a human resources strategist at VF Career Management, Calgary office.

As a senior HR practitioner and an advocate of more evidence-based recruitment of candidates, I still find myself surprised by how human bias enters the process.

Recently, I was talking with a colleague who was looking to recruit for a mid-level professional role. She lit up when I told her about a good prospect she might want to consider.

That was until I told her what “he” was looking for. The mere mention of “he” clearly pushed him to the bottom of the list. And yes, “he” is also white – and middle-aged.

While it remained unspoken, it was evident that the picture of the ideal candidate was based less on skills and experience than on “diversity.” It’s as if colour (white) and gender (male) were the first filters. Only then would skills and experience be considered.

We all have bias – whether we admit it or not. We may not be outright racist, or think we have a bias, but many of us do conjure up thoughts when someone is presented in front of us – good or bad. The challenge of seeking “diversity” in today’s workforce is that we slip all too easily into a form of reverse discrimination, consciously or unconsciously, and this does little to right the wrongs of the past. Employers can embrace diversity, as they should, but also consider proven skills and experience, at the same time.

Take our federal cabinet. It was put together based on the seemingly “fair” representation of women. While well-intentioned, this measure alone doesn’t guarantee diversity in public representation, any more than it would for a business. Instead, it sent the message that the first filter was gender. Based on overall caucus and cabinet numbers, there likely would have been about 50 per cent women in cabinet, or close to, just by appointing based on skills and experience. Choosing 15 from one group (female), and 15 from another group (male), gives the impression that the only important diversity here is gender.

When companies privately state that their next hire will be anyone but a white male, or when ill-considered promises are made to have 50-per-cent female representation, it does not promote true diversity. Rather, it shifts the discrimination away from one group to another.

For too long, it was the norm for the workplace to be populated with white men. Women were not equally employed, and similarly men of other colours and religions were too often consigned to roles that were less visible, unpopular and inadequately compensated. Society has evolved significantly since then, and it’s time for a different discussion on what diversity in hiring practices should look like.

So, how can managers embrace diversity without running into a different kind of discrimination? First, don’t focus on gender or colour. Go beyond and consider diverse backgrounds. Employers tend to hire too much of the same thing, and so they get the same thing. Look at the “whole” person, what they are interested in, their previous experience and how they are different. Look at how they don’t fit into the mould. There is no diversity in consistency.

Second, take the time and resources to invest in having a clear picture of the competencies you truly need for the role. Make sure those are at the forefront of evaluating candidates based on evidence of skill, rather than a “picture of diversity.”

Research has shown that the more diverse the workplace is, the more variety of opinions, management styles and working relationships emerge. When working with people unlike ourselves, we come to learn more about them: not just about their personal lives, but about their culture, religion and values, which, in theory, helps promote tolerance and understanding, and provide different perspectives on issues.

We certainly do need to redress some continuing imbalances in our workforce’s composition and compensation, but using another form of discrimination is not the way to do it.

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