Skip to main content

Karima-Catherine Goundiam is the founder and chief executive officer of digital strategy firm Red Dot Digital and business matchmaking platform B2BeeMatch.

In the business world, I often hear the sentence “We only hire the best.” Sounds like a positive thing, doesn’t it? In theory, sure.

But in practice, this sentence is almost always said or written in response to questions about workplace diversity. And in that context, it indicates a problem.

Before I break down the problems with “only hiring the best,” I want to give the benefit of the doubt: Some companies really do try to establish an objective “best.”

Sometimes, “the best” means trying to reduce bias

In many cases, in a bid to strip out hiring bias, employers hire anonymously. This means they remove all identifying data from applications and conduct interviews in such a way that they never find out what age, gender and race someone is.

This is the only way to be truly objective when it comes to qualifications, and it can be a really useful approach.

But it’s not appropriate for every type of job; it works best in entry-level positions. In many cases, it’s also very hard to examine a person’s résumé or conduct a rich interview without ever learning details of a person’s work experience that would identify some personal attributes.

Anonymity also risks reducing people to just their formal qualifications, removing a lot of the human element that might be part of what makes them a great candidate.

A softer version of the anonymous interview approach is one in which employers use pre-employment tests for candidates and choose their top scorers.

However, this brings up several problems. Appropriate tests can be expensive and time-consuming to create, and may lead to ethical and legal issues, or even deter great candidates.

As well, every test has its limitations. Even if an employer balances out those limitations somehow, testing is often just a first step that leads to an interview in the end anyway.

Ultimately, people aren’t numbers. The top scorer on your test could be a sexual harasser, embezzler or someone who does great working alone at a desk but can’t function in a team environment.

Your slightly lower-scoring person could be the heart of a team – someone with a great sense of humour who can really pull people together when the business is facing tough times. These qualities are very hard to measure objectively, and must be considered as a package.

Also, if your five top scorers are all exactly the same, demographically, then even if they’re strong at their work as individuals, the lack of diversity within the team means you’re going to get fewer new or unexpected ideas, fewer checks and balances on decisions, less innovation and so forth.

Your company’s interests are not served well by this approach. So a “best” that’s focused on high test scores may not be the best after all.

If your company uses these techniques, rather than saying “we only hire the best,” you’re probably better off saying something such as, “We prioritize diversity and part of how we do that is by using hiring processes that aim to strip out bias.” It’s a more accurate message, and a much more appealing one too.

But now that I’ve put in this disclaimer about one relatively positive way that sentence can be improved, let’s move on to the problems with the ways I often hear it – which have nothing to do with anonymity or test scores.

Often, the meaning of “hiring the best” is very hard to pin down

It’s a sneaky expression that, on its own, doesn’t really provide a clear message. Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Focusing on “the best” can also mean discriminating along very traditional lines. For example, young women are sometimes avoided as new hires because it’s assumed they’ll get pregnant and leave the work force, which makes them not “the best” choice.

But many young women are entrepreneurs, and their numbers continue to grow. That indicates that a lot of women have leadership qualities and multifaceted skill sets, but find traditional workplaces less interesting than running their own shops.

And having children doesn’t seem to be stopping them. In fact, female entrepreneurs are often drawn to starting their own businesses in order to have more flexible schedules. What are companies missing when “the best” leaves out these high achievers?

“The best” can also mean choosing the top picks from a classic pool of candidates who, over all, are not so great. For instance, statistically, men are known to be higher-risk drivers than women, and insurance rates reflect this. But men also make up the bulk of the transportation industry.

In cases such as this, truly “hiring the best” would mean aggressively seeking out female candidates and creating a drastic change in the industry’s demographics. Instead, we see a workplace culture pattern repeating itself over time.

If your industry isn’t very diverse, your company may be missing out on the highest possible quality of candidates by simply picking from among the people who are already most likely to apply.

What if “the best” means picking candidates who’ve gone to elite schools or achieved other privileged qualifications?

Unfortunately, Ivy League universities choose “legacy candidates” at a high rate to keep donations from wealthy families pouring in. But wealth and connections don’t in any way reflect quality, skill or intelligence – just opportunity.

Beyond legacy candidates, in an era of serious income disparities and rising tuition, candidates with degrees from fancy schools may just demonstrate how easy their lives have been, relatively speaking, not how skilled they are. This idea of “the best” leaves out people who are smart, determined problem-solvers with lots of valuable life experience.

By all these metrics, “the best” often just … isn’t.

What does “the best” mean to your company?

If you can’t explain it in clear and objective terms, or can’t measure it, then ask yourself if this phrase really expresses something useful to an applicant or says something positive about your workplace culture. It may just be flagging that your company is trying to justify choices not made on the basis of a true “best” at all.

Think about it this way: It’s safe to assume most employers seek out the best possible candidates for a job. So if someone asks a manager or leader about diversity in their company, why would their response need to specify they look for the “best?”

It’s a strange response, because workplace diversity and individual excellence are not incompatible. It implies there’s some reason hiring with diversity in mind would require you to not hire the best.

The subtext here is that diverse candidates aren’t the best. It’s the only idea that fills the logic gap between the question and the answer.

In turn, this makes it clear the opposite is true: It implies you don’t consider diversity to be important, or you don’t want to provide real information about your company’s approach. And it sounds as if you’re defending a choice to avoid diversity in the workplace.

This kind of response, in turn, discourages diverse candidates from applying, because candidates from marginalized groups want to know they’ll be treated well in the workplace in all the fullness of their diversity, not seen through a colour-blind lens that erases parts of who they are.

Remember, attributes that make candidates different are part of what they offer as employees, and it’s been proven time and again that a more diverse team tends to make better decisions that benefit the bottom line.

In the end, employers who use the phrase may in fact end up missing out on “the best” they say they want.

What’s the solution? I say, drop this recycled sentence and focus on the facts. Most excellent, diverse candidates, in addition to hearing about the specific performance metrics or qualifications you’re seeking, will want to see your company make a strong, positive statement about workplace diversity backed up with concrete examples of your initiatives and policies.

Diversity is a key part of being the best, and it’s time for us to say it loud and clear.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.