Diversity, equity and inclusion are imperative. How can companies — and the individuals in them — ensure the kind of inclusive hiring practices that will lead to a genuinely equitable and diverse culture? Darden Professor Toni Irving, an expert in leadership, organizational behavior and business ethics, discusses problems and solutions for hiring and developing diverse talent.  

Widen the Talent Pool   

There’s that old adage: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Once potential applicants learn about a position through a general posting, it is already too late. Posting a job is, therefore, not always an effective way of broadening a candidate pool to include diverse talent.


For a more inclusive process, organizations should review whether they are relying heavily on employee referrals if the employee base is not already diverse. Hiring managers should reach out to people of color in the organization to ask for referrals, and if they are reluctant, examine it as a data point in how the organizations is viewed — then evaluate and take action regarding its structural issues.

Irving elaborates: “The defense of ‘lack of qualified candidates’ should no longer be considered valid without organizations taking initiative to 1) quantify the pipeline of potential applicants and 2) take an active role with organizations designed to advance people of color. Many nonprofit organizations have set up feeder programs so that there is a way to attract this diverse, qualified talent to companies.” For example: MasterCard partners with INROADS, a nonprofit that places high-performing Black, Latino and American Indian students in internships at leading corporations. Likewise, Aon builds professional partnerships with organizations such as Out & Equal Workplace Advocates and the American Corporate Partners for Veterans. Dun & Bradstreet has a relationship with the National Black MBA Association (NBMBA) and is a supporter of the association’s scholarship fund and outreach program.

The Wrong Questions

Some companies have realized that salary history and professional experience questions lead to limited inclusive hiring. For entry-level hiring, organizations such as EY, Google and Whole Foods have removed the college degree requirement, seeing that it has little to no bearing on the actual skills needed for certain positions. Salary history questions have long excluded women and minorities from candidate pools, as hiring managers have generally used these to judge whether the candidates are too expensive or inexperienced. 

Remove Implicit Bias in the Process

A hiring manager’s first impression of a candidate’s resume and how they present themselves in an interview are traditional parts of the hiring process. But they can come with unseen dangers: Unconscious bias is something no person can avoid. Making a judgment on these factors can be unintentionally exclusionary because of affinity bias and one’s subconscious or stereotypical views of what a successful person or resume looks like. If left unchecked, this can overshadow one’s assessment of each candidate based on skills and merit.  

Whitening Resumes

For example, researchers at Stanford University and the University of Toronto revealed that callback rates were higher for minority college students who whitened their resumes through simple strategies like altering their first names and leaving out extracurricular activities, such as undergraduate student groups, that could reveal their race. Even among companies that used pro-diversity language in their job ads, callback rates were no higher than other companies when it came to students who did not whiten their resumes. One way to counteract this is with the use of technology that takes some of the subjectivity out of the process. Blendoor, for example, uses people analytics to counteract bias in the job application process. The app hides the candidates’ names and photos to focus only on their skills, experience and education.

Standards of Success

While leaders generally like to see their organizations as meritocracies with only the best talent advancing to higher levels, this may not be the case due to the subjective nature of hiring, feedback and promotion in general. There is implicit bias in most organizational success standards: Historically, those standards have been set by white, male leaders, and there may be concern that diverse hiring will disrupt the standards of an already successful organization.  As companies look to innovate for strategic reasons, they should also question and test new ways of thinking about definitions of success and merit for their talent.

Address the Structural Issues in the Organization

An inclusive hiring process is dependent on factors outside the process as well. Candidates look at the make-up of the executives, the management, and the brand, culture and values of an organization. Firms should expect that potential hires are talking to people of color in the organization to get the real scoop on opportunities — and whether the company is paying lip service or really acting with inclusion. If what they hear and see contradicts their hiring process experience, no matter how inclusive, those hiring efforts may be in vain. Leaders need to be aware of the organization’s compensation equity, representation across all role levels and retention for diverse employees — and be authentic about any initiatives for enhancement.

The Senior Level

Especially critical to support the brand, culture and values necessary for inclusive hiring: a significant representation of people of color at the senior level. These individuals can provide insight on any structural issues. Irving suggests that leadership “taps into the company’s diverse employees — leverage their experiences and bring them into the decision-making process. If talking about equity and inclusion within the senior leadership team and no one in room is a minority, it won’t be successful.” Irving uses a reference from the popular Broadway show Hamilton, saying people of color “have to be in the room where it happens.”

Development and Promotion

Within the organization, ensure that networking, mentoring and development occur across employee demographic groups and job levels. As in the hiring process, “who you know” is key to promotional opportunities, and development is key to unlocking potential for future roles. Recognize that this commitment is needed, and invest in it especially for people of color.

Ultimately, Irving encourages all leaders to “Think: ‘How am I signaling that these issues are important?’ That is a key culture-setting moment for leaders — ensuring others can see that genuinely inclusive behaviors are valued.”   


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About the Expert

Toni Irving

Frank M. Sands Sr. Professor of Practice

Irving has decades of experience across multiple interconnected disciplines, including finance, health care, academia, consulting, government, philanthropy and nonprofit management. At Darden, she teaches, writes and consults on topics ranging from leadership, organizational behavior, nonprofit management, cross-sector partnerships, social impact, corporate responsibility and business ethics.

Prior to joining Darden, Irving launched and led the social impact fund Get In Chicago, which worked with corporations, government, health systems and private philanthropy. The public-private partnership developed data-driven solutions to some of Chicago’s most difficult social and economic problems by investing in, evaluating, and building capacity in nonprofit organizations supporting public systems. Additionally, she was a member of the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, where she conducted research and teaching at the intersection of law, literature and social policy.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently named Irving a nonresident senior fellow, global cities.

B.A., University of Virginia; M.A., University of Kent; Ph.D., New York University